Hospitals nationwide are dealing with staffing shortages, but the issue is even more pressing for rural medical centers like the ones found throughout Iowa and Illinois. That’s why Ted Rogalski, administrator of Genesis Medical Center in DeWitt and Aledo travelled to Washington, DC this week to take part in the National Rural Health Association’s annual policy meeting. “It’s the first time that we have been in person again in DC due to the pandemic, so this was an opportunity to bring rural healthcare providers across the nation together to go talk to our legislators and really get the word out about what our challenges are for rural healthcare.”

Photo courtesy Genesis Medical Center

Rogalski is encouraged by the support he’s seen from legislators in Washington. “We’re blessed here locally in that we have very strong legislative support in Washington DC. Yesterday we had a meeting with Senator Dick Durbin, and he has been a longtime supporter and proponent for rural healthcare. He has passed a number of measures that have been very supportive to us, especially from a workforce standpoint and that’s probably our number one challenge that we have faced over the last couple of years.”

In a speech to the National Rural Health Association, Durbin shared some startling statistics. In a press release of the speech, he said that in Illinois, nearly 30% of rural hospitals have a shortage of primary care doctors and 94% of rural communities don’t have enough mental health care providers. Over half of the nearly 195,000 registered nurses in the state are over the age of 55 and about 25% say they plan to retire in the next five years. 

Rogalski isn’t surprised by those numbers. “In our facility in Aledo, we have been searching for a primary care physician for the last four or five years. We’ve had that open position and we’re really getting nervous because we have a physician who will retire at the end of the year, and it’s really gotten to be a challenge to find somebody to come in and take that position.” There are several reasons why the hospital is having problems attracting qualified applicants. “We’re not producing enough physicians across the country to fill the need, especially from a primary care standpoint. That has changed over the last several years in that there is more interest in primary care medicine, as opposed to going into specialty medicine but there is still a big gap,” Rogalski said. “It is a challenge for us to recruit to our rural facilities. For some reason, people like to be in the sand in the sun and in big cities, so those are more attractive positions for those limited graduates coming out of those programs.”

Attracting doctors isn’t the only staffing challenge they’re facing at Genesis. “One thing that Senator Durbin did focus on yesterday, and it has become a very acute issue, and that’s EMS service,” said Rogalski. “I think out of all of our workforce challenges that’s number one on our list right now. Our number one opening across our health system is for EMS providers and we’re very challenged to find those individuals. We’ve had to cut back services and now we’re relying on mutual aid from other communities to help make sure that we can continue to provide the services in Mercer County.”

St. Margaret’s Health in Peru recently closed and Rogalski worries that it might be the first of many nationwide. “It’s a big concern, especially across the nation. We’ve been a little bit more isolated here in Iowa and Illinois, a little protected from closures.” That protection might not last. “I think we are going to see a number of our critical access hospitals, those are smallest rural hospitals, challenged with that. Twenty five percent of them have negative operating margins and during the pandemic we got some federal funding to help support our rural facilities. That money is now gone and so I think we will see an increasing number of hospital closures in the Midwest. It’s been mostly in Texas, down south in Georgia where we’ve seen a multitude of closures but we’re going to see those in the Midwest as well.”

Restaurants and stores have been encouraging customers to shop and eat locally for years to ensure they stay in business and the same goes for rural healthcare, says Rogalski. “Number one, we always advocate in our community to use your local healthcare services, use your local providers because rural (healthcare) can only be strong if all of our residents are using those services. I think number two is to be aware of these issues. Our rural communities are only vibrant if we have that strong business presence. Healthcare tends to be the number one or number two employer in a lot of our rural communities.”