How telemedicine pulled one rural hospital back from the brink of bankruptcy

Facing a declining population, one 14-bed hospital in Idaho was preparing to shut its doors before an enterprising new CEO pulled it back from the ledge by integrating innovative tech-based approaches to care.

Now, the hospital may serve as the poster child for how rural facilities can use digital technology to remain financially stable and maintain access to care.

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In 2013, Lost Rivers Medical Center in Arco, Idaho, had just $7,000 in the bank and saw its community population drop below 1,000, according to Kaiser Health News. The hospital’s demise appeared inevitable, but incoming CEO Brad Huerta saw an opportunity.  

Huerta took over the ailing medical center, passed a $5.5 million bond, and used that money to streamline the hospital’s workforce by investing in telehealth services. Now, the hospital has a fully functioning telepharmacy staffed by students at Idaho State University where patients consult with a pharmacist 80 miles away. The hospital also offers telehealth services for mental health, and physicians can get virtual guidance from specialists.

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Huerta also cut costs by transitioning to a cloud-based EHR system. Now he says the hospital is making a small profit and looking to reinvest that money into additional services, like teleoncology, to save patients from traveling long distances for cancer care.

Although rural health experts note that infrastructure challenges and the costs associated with establishing telehealth programs are often prohibitive for rural facilities, other medical centers have seen similar success by leaning on telemedicine. A recent report by NTCA-The Rural Broadband Association indicated that telehealth could save rural hospitals an average of $81,000 each year but would likely trigger much broader savings across the community.

Telehealth has also been a key component of a rural health demonstration project led by the CMS Innovation Center that launched last year. Six of the 10 sites involved in the project will focus solely on telehealth interventions.