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The state of rural healthcare research released

Thursday, February 2, 2023

Rural healthcare providers are financially healthy and confident, according to new research by Wipfli LLP.  

Rural America’s health is vital to the economic and food security of us all. Few hands produce a tremendous amount of work, and they deserve to be well cared for as they age. Yet the number of rural healthcare facilities is dwindling.

Wipfli surveyed rural healthcare providers to get a pulse on their financial health, which has a direct impact on population health. In Wipfli’s state of rural healthcare report, we learned that bad news exists — but so does hope and optimism.

Two-thirds of rural clinics said their financial situation today is the same or better than it was five years ago. Looking ahead, over 75% of rural providers expect their revenue to grow or remain flat over the next three years.

Three-quarters of the organizations we surveyed are independently operated — and the majority feels confident that they can stay that way. Sixty-five percent are not at all likely to merge with another organization in the next five years. Seventy-three percent intend to expand or invest in new facilities.

Heading into 2023, rural healthcare organizations are most concerned about talent issues, including the cost of labor and a lack of qualified workers. In our research, 90% of respondents had experienced a worker shortage.

To address the talent gap, 78% of rural providers have increased wages. They’re also recruiting proactively for open positions, using automation to reduce workloads and supplementing permanent staff with temporary nonclinical workers.

Distance and transportation challenges and health literacy and stigma issues all make it harder for rural Americans to access healthcare. To keep communities well, rural clinics need to create simple and convenient patient experiences. Since the pandemic, patients have been quicker to adopt healthcare technology, such as telehealth and telemonitoring. Rural clinics said they’ve added remote healthcare services, online bill pay, online patient portals and price estimator tools to engage with patients from afar.

Getting paid is another top concern affecting rural providers’ financial health. Clinics are working to improve federal reimbursements and renegotiate payer contracts. At this time, most are not considering reducing services to cut costs.

According to our survey, rural healthcare providers also need enhanced financial projections to control costs.

“Quality and timely data can give leaders a clearer picture of operational cost drivers, such as staffing, and opportunities to generate more revenue. Adding services, providers or outreach programs could help balance the books, but clinics need data to support these strategic moves,” said Kelly Arduino, the head of Wipfli’s healthcare industry.

The majority of rural healthcare organizations are investing in digital tools. Most of their investments are being directed toward nonclinical business tools to drive efficiency. Sixty percent are pursuing cloud computing and IT infrastructure upgrades. About a third are upgrading enterprise resource planning tools and artificial intelligence capabilities.

Wipfli collected responses from 110 rural healthcare organizations across 25 states to inform the report. Of the organizations surveyed, 75% are independently operated and the balance is part of a health system. Seventy-eight percent are critical access hospitals, 12% are provider-based clinics, 7% are independent health clinics and 3% are other.

Download a copy of the state of rural healthcare report