#591 – What a Hospital Closure Really Means for a Rural Community

Posted on | The Agurban

The primary locations for our development projects are smaller, rural communities. One amenity that has been disappearing from small town across the United States is their rural hospitals. Proximity to health care is a key factor in where people move to, or move from. A recent article by Dr. Christine Hancock in the Rural Roads magazine, a publication from the National Rural Health Association, lays out what it means to have a hospital in your town, and what it could mean if you do not.  We are including some of Dr. Hancock’s key points below.

What a Hospital Closure Really Means for a Rural Community
Summer 2016

In the past six years, 72 rural hospitals in the U.S. have closed, including nine already in 2016.

One in three rural hospitals is at risk of closing, and according to the National Rural Health Association’s Journal of Rural Health, closure rates have increased 600 percent in the past five years.

Across the country, small towns are literally losing their lifelines.

What gets lost in this story is what these closures mean for the towns whose hospitals are shuttered. Sure, it’s obvious that jobs, public safety, and community institutions are at stake. But what are we really doing by letting these institutions die?

The first loss is a sense of safety and security, one that is backed up by hard evidence. A 2014 study in Health Affairs showed that the death rates for patients in towns where the ER recently closed increased 5 percent across the board and 15 percent when patients had a heart attack or stroke.

A shuttered hospital is also a near-death sentence to many small-town economies. On average, according to the Health Services Research Journal, closure of a local hospital reduces per capita income by $703 and increases unemployment by 1.6 percent.

Hospital closures also drive down property values, make towns far less attractive to retirees with their often complex health problems, and gut the local professional community, taking a hit on the local pharmacies and other local health-related businesses as well.

With doctors and other clinicians frequently employed by hospitals, the loss of a hospital can also mean the loss of nearly all medical care in that community. A patient’s doctor for the past five, 10, or 20 years can move on despite a heartfelt commitment to rural health and his or her patients. An ambulance service can disappear, leaving residents to drive deathly ill friends and family members to the hospital without any medical support.

Providers who cost tens of thousands of dollars and months or years to recruit can all be gone within weeks. Without a hospital to support them, many move on to more sustainable medical communities where they have more resources and are less isolated.

Finally, hospitals are frequently a key provider of career opportunities and a path to the middle class for rural people who often have few options besides leaving town to be educated elsewhere. They are sources of the “homegrown” rural clinicians and health professionals that every government program is struggling to produce and retain.

Allowing the current wave of rural hospital closures to continue defies our most basic values. The 62 million rural Americans depend on them.