17,000 clinicians are needed in medical deserts. How can AI help?

Authored by: Marika Bierma

Imagine this: you live in a rural area of the United States and you need critical medical care. You travel over 30 miles to your ‘local’ hospital, but when you arrive, the emergency department is full and there aren’t enough clinicians to care for the constant influx of patients. Unfortunately, this is often the reality for individuals who live in remote areas throughout the United States. 

Growing up in rural Oregon, the idea of a medical desert is all too familiar to me. Medical deserts are regions where people have little or no access to medical care due to a variety of factors, including a lack of healthcare professionals, inadequate transportation, and a lack of funding for healthcare facilities. Also known as Health Professional Shortage Areas (HPSAs), medical deserts have fewer than a generally accepted minimum number of clinicians (physicians, dentists, mental health workers, etc.) per thousand population. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, there are over 8,000 HPSAs in the United States as of September 2022, encompassing almost 98 million individuals who are at risk for receiving inadequate medical care. The Kaiser Family Foundation estimates that it will take almost 17,000 clinicians to eliminate HPSA-designated sites throughout the U.S. 

There’s no way that we can manifest that large number of clinicians overnight to fix the medical desert issue. However, there are ways to utilize artificial intelligence (AI) technology to remediate some of the operational issues that arise due to a lack of hospital staff. It is imperative that rural medicine is supported to maintain the health of individuals who live in these remote areas, and AI can help optimize the care these hospitals provide. 

Rural clinicians really do it all

Due to a lack of clinician attraction to the remote and isolating setting of rural hospitals, rural clinicians often do it all. They go from performing an annual physical exam to setting a broken arm in the ER and delivering a baby–all in the course of a single shift. It’s not uncommon for rural intensive care units (ICUs) to be managed by hospitalists, family medicine physicians, advance practice nurses, or bedside nurses (rather than critical care physicians) as there simply aren’t enough rural medicine doctors to meet the patient demand. 

Having to take on so many roles–and oftentimes without proper training–rural nurses often experience burnout and fatigue. Can individual clinicians really ‘do it all’? It’s obvious from understaffing and poor efficiency issues in rural hospitals that the answer to this question is no. There’s a capacity to how much the human brain can take on, and for many rural nurses that capacity is frequently reached. 

Inefficiency in rural hospitals was greatly exacerbated during the COVID-19 pandemic, for there was a huge influx in critically-ill patients. Given that rural hospitals serve a much larger geographical region than many urban hospitals, they can end up being the central or ‘local’ hospital for massive amounts of patients, but without the resources that urban university hospitals have. COVID didn’t spare anyone, and rural hospitals were flooded with COVID patients without adequate staff, space, or workflows to care for everyone. 

Technology in rural medicine

The integration of technology in rural hospitals is not a novel concept. It’s well-known that rural healthcare often lacks the cutting-edge resources (both staff and machines) necessary to adequately care for patients. Technology has slowly been making its way into rural medicine, but much of it has been focused on assisting with complicated medical cases (i.e. virtually helping rural docs perform surgeries)–which is incredibly important. But what about the underlying organizational issues that prevent these hospitals from caring properly for their influx of patients in the first place? 

AI technology has the power to improve efficiency by optimizing staffing, reducing erroneous alarms so clinicians aren’t overworked, and giving insight into the operational health of rural hospitals to know when they are at full capacity given their resources and need to start referring patients to other, larger facilities. Rural hospitals don’t have the time, staff, nor money to implement numerous ‘cutting-edge’ technologies or equipment. They need something that works across systems in order to improve overall efficiency. 

Targeting the root issue: Operations Health

Oftentimes, society gets caught up in the novelty of ‘cool’ technologies aimed at diagnoses, cures, and therapeutics. In reality, we need to get to the root of the issue in healthcare: operational health. Without knowledge on how hospitals are performing from an organizational perspective, there’s no way that these new, creative, cutting-edge technologies will survive. 

Rural hospitals do not need to be overhauled by novel research technologies that cure rare diseases or purchase overly advanced tools that require sophisticated infrastructure to be sustained. They need technology that provides critical operational insight so that they can maximize care given the resources that they already possess. Saving patients’ lives starts with optimizing staff and workflows necessary to even be able to admit them into the hospital. 

How AI can help

The impact of AI technology on rural healthcare is particularly significant when considering the issues that medical deserts face. By aggregating data that already exists in rural hospitals, AI can provide critical operational insight that bridges the gap and ensures that individuals in remote areas have access to the healthcare they need.

It’s exciting to work on a solution that can change healthcare in rural areas like the one I call home, and that’s part of the beauty and vision of CalmWave. CalmWave has tapped into AI’s impeccable capability to aggregate data across numerous platforms in order to provide key insights into the operational health of all hospitals. The CalmWave Platform empowers hospitals with the intelligence critical to improving patient outcomes, optimizing operations, and retaining staff–all things that could help with issues that rural hospitals face given low clinician numbers. By targeting the root causes of inefficiency in medical institutions, CalmWave maximizes the data and resources available in order to improve working conditions for clinicians and optimize patient care, even for the most remote hospitals. 

Now imagine this: you travel over 30 miles to receive critical medical care in rural America, and when you walk in the doors you immediately receive adequate, advanced care from clinicians who are optimizing their workflows with CalmWave’s Operations Health technology. Schedule a demo today to see how CalmWave can improve the functionality of your hospital, no matter where it’s located.