Helping clinics plan for the future
A new federal grant helps provide support and resources for the newly established North Dakota Rural Health Clinic Network.
Tina Schwartz, clinic manager for Northwood Deaconess Health Center, understands the value of collaboration.
This is why she jumped at the chance to join the North Dakota Rural Health Clinic (RHC) Network, which will help her better represent the clinics in Northwood, Larimore, and Binford, all affiliates of the Northwood Deaconess Health Center.
“The things I am excited about,” said Schwartz, “are the continuing education, training, networking, and advocacy at the federal level. It’s nice to have the connection with the National Association of Rural Health Clinics, and someone in Washington advocating for us and to have a voice. This Network will help with that.”
Building a network
The Center for Rural Health (CRH) at the University of North Dakota School of Medicine & Health Sciences established the North Dakota Rural Health Clinic Network in 2021, through Flex/State Office of Rural Health funding.
The need for such a network arose when leadership at CRH noticed there was no system for the RHCs throughout the state.
“We found there wasn’t anything currently in place to support the RHCs,” said Anna Walter, project coordinator for the RHC Network. “We saw a need and were able to provide organization, support, and resources.”
Having established North Dakota’s RHC Network, CRH and its affiliates spent the network’s first year reaching out to the RHCs, finding out what help they were looking for, and building an advisory committee.
And in the wake of this move, a new grant—a Rural Health Network Development Planning Program grant—was awarded to CRH. Funded through the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA), the one-year, $100,000 grant began on July 1, 2022, and will strengthen healthcare in rural communities by providing support to rural health facilities and help the RHC Network build on the work that has occurred over the past year.
What is a Rural Health Clinic?
So how does the HRSA define “rural clinic”?
According to Rural Health Information Hub, RHCs can be public, nonprofit, or for-profit healthcare facilities. To receive certification, they must be located in rural, underserved areas. They are required to use a team approach of physicians working with non-physician providers such as nurse practitioners (NP), physician assistants (PA), and certified nurse midwives (CNM) to provide services. The clinic must be staffed at least 50% of the time with an NP, PA, or CNM (this requirement was waived during COVID-19). RHCs are required to provide outpatient primary care services and basic laboratory services.
Shelby Davis has been the clinic manager for Tioga Medical Center (TMC)—which is one of 55 networked RHCs in the state—since 2015. TMC also has two satellite clinics in Ray and Powers Lake, N.D.
Davis said that she jumped at the chance to have TMC join the RHC Network.
“The RHCs across North Dakota are really the backbone of our state’s healthcare. That’s where our patients are being connected with their providers and hospitals, and being referred to the bigger hospitals in our state. Right away I was excited for the opportunity to connect with each other, learn, and collaborate.”
“We have a lot of good things in the pipeline we are excited about,” continued Walter. “This [HRSA] grant is for one year, but this fall we will apply for a three-year grant where we can build in activities and continue the work we have already started to support the RHCs. There was so much great discussion and positive ideas for this Network at our recent strategic planning meeting in June. The RHCs are excited to keep receiving the help we are able to provide.”
Training and education
As of November 1, 2021, all 55 state RHCs have joined the RHC Network. The model for the Network was based off of the Critical Access Hospital (CAH) Quality Network that has been in existence at CRH since 2007. The CAH Quality Network has been wildly successful and has all 37 CAHs in the state as members.
RHC Network participants receive support for Conditions for Certification, quality and performance improvement, and to improve communication and collaboration among healthcare providers to best serve the rural health organizations and their communities. An advisory committee was established in 2022 and includes representatives from RHCs across the state.
Davis emphasized the value the trainings have already brought to the group.
“[The Network] has already provided training that otherwise we would not have been able to afford. We’ve had a virtual mock site survey, for example. Rural Health Clinics have their site surveys every five to seven years, so it was very beneficial to be able to stay up-to-date on the new regulations and make sure we’re in compliance.”
Partners in health
Network partners on the HRSA grant include Northwood Deaconess Health Center, First Care Health Center, Jacobson Memorial Hospital Care Center Elgin, and Tioga Medical Center—plus other state partners of the North Dakota Hospital Association.
One such partner, and advisory committee member, is Dustin Hager. Hager is not only a clinic manager at Heart of America Medical Center (HAMC) in Rugby, N.D.; he is also a physician assistant who sees patients at the Rugby clinic and is Chief Operating Officer for HAMC, which also manages locations in Dunseith and Maddock, N.D.
“Having three Rural Health Clinics, HMAC has about 17,000 office visits a year. Having that support network to build from, and be a part of, was very intriguing to me,” Hager said. “This Network provides an opportunity to get together with other managers and CEOs to look at the commonalities between us, brainstorm, find solutions to common problems, and grow and develop from each other as well.”
Clinic managers like Hager often come from varied backgrounds in rural communities, and they are often filling multiple positions. Having the support and resource of the RHC Network will supplement that experience and help individuals grow into the position.
“A lot of times clinic managers have been thrown into their positions,” concluded Schwartz. “You might be a nurse, or worked in an office setting, and don’t have a lot of overall experience. The more we can train, educate, and provide a well-rounded experience, the better prepared the RHCs will be.”