Telehealth Gives New Hope For Small ERs

As small hospitals struggle to stay profitable, one of the first things they often jettison is a 24-hour emergency room. But some of these facilities are using telehealth to restore round-the-clock ER service.

Last year, the 30-bed Kings County Memorial Hospital in rural Montague on Canada’s Prince Edward Island was forced to reduce its ER hours from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m., but the town council recently approved a telehealth pilot in the ER.

Ray Brown, the local businessman who spearheaded this effort, argued that a sick astronaut on the space station can be treated immediately – and Montague residents deserve no less. 

When a small hospital curtails ER hours, it’s a red flag that they’re on the road to full closure. The University of North Carolina estimates that about 70 rural hospitals have closed their doors in the last six years. When they go under, the National Institutes of Health estimates that it reduces community per-capita income by about $700/year and increases the local unemployment rate by 1.6%.

The Kings County facility has about the same number of beds as a critical access hospital in the U.S. – and there are more than 1,300 of them across the country, mainly serving rural communities. Last year, researchers at the University of Mississippi Medical Center in Jackson conducted a study of the fifteen small hospitals that use its telehealth platform. They found that a typical spoke hospital could reduce its staffing costs by 25% and increase admissions 20% by retaining patients that otherwise would need to be transported to larger hospitals.

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