Rural Community Prosperity and the Role of Healthcare

By Caroline Chamberlain, Product Marketing Manager

This blog is in response to the first ever North Georgia Rural Prosperity Forum, hosted on July 23, 2019 by the Georgia Chamber. 

There are many problems that plague rural communities across Georgia and the United States. There is also untapped potential within these underserved communities. The North Georgia Rural Prosperity Forum met for the first time in Dahlonega, GA earlier this week to address such challenges and the areas of opportunity. Two themes that permeated throughout the course of the day were connectivity and economic development. 

Connectivity in rural communities is a major issue

It is hard to believe that we are in the 21st century and there are still entire communities without access to broadband internet. (For perspective, broadband internet was developed around 1999. Widespread usage in the United States began around 2009.) Without broadband internet, how do they stream Netflix? How do they take online classes? Or how do they promote their business outside of the community? With the growth of work from home positions, there are entire communities across the United States that are immediately taken out of the equation because of one standard the rest of us take for granted: access to the internet.

Economic development in rural communities has a lot of challenges

The challenges with economic development in rural areas is complex. The whole “build it and they will come” mentality isn’t as successful as it once was. It has become a chicken or the egg scenario…the need to have basic infrastructure and facilities in order to bring in money and employers. But the money and employers don’t always arrive because of the lack of infrastructure, including broadband internet access. There is also funding hurdle. It costs a town money to build the infrastructure and recruit businesses and employers. Money that, quite frankly, isn’t always available in the budget.

Yet, throughout the day I found myself wondering “where does healthcare fit into these conversations?”.

The opioid epidemic and addiction hit hard, especially in Appalachia

Discussions around the opioid epidemic, with some heartbreaking stories from Appalachia, were naturally included in the discussion. 

Two of the solutions discussed were around prevention and education within the community. These are great ways to address this ongoing rural health issue but what can be done at the point controlled substances are prescribed? During the legislators session later in the day, there was some mention about policy and pursuing over-prescribing physician through the Medicare fraud efforts. But there are some technology solutions that can work, too. Electronic Prescribing of Controlled Substances (EPCS) has been mandated in 21 states. Additionally, WalMart is joining in on the fight against opioids. They have mandated that any controlled substance prescribed for distribution at their pharmacies must be done so electronically, further reiterating the need for EPCS.

Another benefit to EPCS is the ability to track and report on physicians who are over-prescribing controlled substances. While this doesn’t help with the illegal drugs, it does control the physician over-prescribing component of the opioid crisis, which also impacts the availability of opioids in the market. Georgia needs to push forward with active legislation that considers mandating EPCS at the state-level. By doing so, we can put a strong foot forward in the fight against opioids. 

What about healthcare regarding connectivity and economic development?

Connectivity doesn’t just provide access to the outside world. It also offers the opportunity to provide quality patient care through telemedicine services. Broadband internet connectivity at a clinic or hospital means the facility can utilize cloud-based software which is less expensive to maintain. Driving the cost of an EHR down provides opportunity for financial gains that can shift the budget and financial constraints of the facility. With those critical dollars back in the budget, facilities can look at focusing on retaining their employees, providing quality patient care, or even growing their referral network.

Infrastructure and access to affordable housing aren’t the only things that employers look for when relocating their business or opening a new factory. They want to know there is quality healthcare in the area for their employees and their families. What about opportunities to partner with your local hospital or healthcare provider in recruiting new businesses? Not only does that help bring in new patients to the local healthcare providers, it also shows a close-knit community that the employer has the opportunity to be a part of.

But, it’s not all doom and gloom!

Rural communities are uniquely poised for opportunity and growth while retaining their charm and desirable lifestyle. There are plenty of resources available to help address these rural challenges, including companies who help deploy economic development plans and oversee the fundraising efforts. With a joint effort from federal, state and local leaders, these challenges can be overcome and we will begin to see rural communities thrive, instead of merely trying to survive. And the healthcare providers in the community should have a seat at the table.