Let’s Help Sustain Rural Hospitals in North Carolina

by Cindy Matthews, RCHC Board Member

At the end of 2017, Our Community Hospital of Scotland Neck, N.C., shut its doors. Hospital closure for me is close to home. Whether from views near my home in Blowing Rock, N.C. to other parts of the state, or from my vantage as a healthcare executive helping community hospitals remain viable, this story has been told and heard, many times. It’s about every North Carolinian having access to quality healthcare and the necessary tools to live healthy lives.

Scotland Neck, located in Halifax County, ranks 96th out of 100 North Carolina counties for health outcomes. Couple that with unemployment at 6.1% versus the state average of 4.1 and a struggling school district, people will get sicker, not better.  These indicators reflect a population that is sicker, poorer, and economically disadvantaged.

Our Community Hospital marks the 83rd rural hospital closure in the United States since 2010, and counting, according to the North Carolina Rural Research Program. Over the past 10 years, rural and community hospitals have been closing at an accelerating pace and unfortunately, more are at high risk for closure.

It does not always make sense to keep the doors of a hospital open. Sometimes it makes sense to look at alternative models of healthcare delivery, the use of telemedicine, or sometimes bringing in management expertise. Regrettably, it was too late for Scotland Neck.

With doors closing, who is focused on making sure that the community’s residents have access to health care? That they can make it to the closest hospital with enough time to treat critical conditions or make it possible to make regular appointments to manage chronic conditions?  The way things stand the hospital closes its doors. It’s done. However, there is another way.  There must be a strategic public and private partnership to address access to healthcare in rural North Carolina. There are many organizations gathering data and studying the issue. However, who is mustering the will to make it so?

We don’t have to look too far for a solution.  Take a look at neighboring South Carolina, where in 2014, the State of South Carolina established the Hospital Transformation Plan Program. The program supported qualifying hospitals to transition to more sustainable models to meet the needs of their communities.  I had the opportunity to be a part of the solution, and I’d like to help do it again here in my state.

As North Carolinians, we have all the resources, research, and creativity to break out of our silos and together begin comprehensively addressing this opportunitythe opportunity to work together ensuring vital, healthy, and prosperous rural communities.

The opportunity is clear. New ways are needed to retain local resources for the health and well-being of rural communities.

Cindy Matthews spends as much time as possible hiking and enjoying her home in Blowing Rock, N.C.