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Q&A: How are rural communities pulling together as health systems prepare for COVID-19?

Published on 4/20/2020

Estimated read time: 3 minutes

While headlines about COVID-19 have focused on large metropolitan areas, rural health systems are also bracing for the impact of the pandemic. In this Q&A, Adam Willmann, president and CEO of Goodall-Witcher Hospital in Clifton, Texas, discusses how his community is working together to help prepare for a potential surge of COVID-19 patients.

Q: What are some of the unique challenges you’re facing as a rural health organization?

A: Goodall-Witcher is a 25-bed critical access hospital. We’re the only health care facility for Bosque County’s 18,000 residents, and we only have two ventilators. So if we don't follow the social distancing guidelines, we’ll be overwhelmed. We’re an older community with a lot of retirees in that high-risk category. I’ve been frank with them, saying, “You stay home. If you need something from the grocery store, call me.” Not all our employees have a strong internet signal at their home, so we have to find alternate sites for those team members to safely complete their work. We have unique challenges, but we also have a unique community that’s willing to step up and help each other.

Q: How is the community helping your organization prepare?

A: We have an extremely tight-knit community, and it is helping in a variety of ways. For example, our Bosque County seamstress, a few schools and a few church groups got together to make cloth masks for us. So, if we experience a patient surge and our supply of personal protective equipment becomes limited, we can put the cloth masks over our N95 masks to help keep them clean. It’s not a perfect solution, but every little bit helps.

We also have community members and local restaurants supplying us with meals because we’ve closed our hospital cafe to reduce the spread of the virus.

Another initiative we have in place is partnering with local hotels to provide rooms to staff members. We want to give them the option to go there to shower, relax and sleep after their shifts instead of going home and possibly spreading the virus to their families.

Q: What are the best practices or lessons learned that you can share with other rural health communities?

A: I would tell them to be flexible and fluid. Even on day one, when we felt pretty good about the new policies we put out, we completely changed course and had to go a different direction within 12 hours. You have to be nimble, and communication must be the priority. In my mind, miscommunication could be the difference between life and death for a patient.

Q: What role is technology playing as you prepare for the potential surge?

A: Our Cerner electronic health record gives us a one-stop-shop for information on anybody that seeks care at our hospital. The complete integration of the EHR across our organization empowers the emergency department, clinic and hospital to all communicate clearly. We’re also part of the Cerner CommunityWorks model, which means we share a domain with other organizations. We're all at different points in our surge preparation, so it’s valuable to share with each other and work together to get through this crisis.