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Rural healthcare is better — a lot better — than you think
by Jennifer Chick, photos by Dan Christensen
One thing that stops people from leaving crowded urban cities for a life in rural Nebraska is the misperception that the quality of healthcare is somehow diminished. While it’s true that access to some types of specialists and unusual procedures may be less convenient, rural Nebraska healthcare provides an intimate setting where patients, doctors and surgeons can create more personalized treatment plans.
South central Nebraska is dotted with medical clinics and hospitals where patients are the number one priority. Staff ensures that patients receive top-notch care right in their hometown, and patients appreciate the convenience of healthcare where doctors remember them and know their families too.
More caring in your care
"I know we get gold stars from everybody that comes in here that has been in a larger facility," said Rita Jones, CEO of Dundy County Hospital in Benkelman. "People are more involved in your care and there is more caring in your care. It's like taking care of your neighbor."
In many cases, the doctors that patients see at the local clinic or hospital are the same people who serve on committees, attend churches or cheer at ball games next to community members. Doctors in smaller towns get to know their patients beyond the clinic walls. They know their children, their parents, and their friends, which can lead to more personalized care and a better understanding of the issues affecting patients.
Dr. Scott Ehresman, originally from Grand Island, has been practicing family medicine in Holdrege at Family Medical Specialties for 21 years. He feels he can deliver patients' treatments and diagnoses often faster than medical facilities in larger towns because there are fewer practitioners to go through first. If a client comes in for an exam on Wednesday, that patient often has a procedure and diagnosis by Friday.
"I think we're more efficient," he said. "I think we're more personal. I think the quality of care is not only as good, but maybe even better, for what we offer."
And in a small town, family physicians see a wide range of patients, something Ehresman appreciates. He delivers babies for patients he once saw as children. He is on the sideline at local sports activities, ready to offer sports medicine care while watching children that he delivered now playing as young adults with the entire community cheering them on.
"It's really fun to be involved in the community," Ehresman said. "There will be times when I'll be at a sporting event and I'll say, 'Yep, I delivered that one, that one, that one.'"
Better knowledge equals better treatment
Tabatha Thorell of Loomis doctors with Ehresman. He has been her doctor since she was 10, and she appreciates that he has known her as a child, a teenager, and now as a mom.
"I like the fact that he knows me," Thorell said. "I know they write stuff in a chart, but I know that there's more stuff that he remembers just from knowing me. It's kind of neat that he knows my medical history, my girls, my mom, my sisters, and that doesn't happen when you are in a big city."
Ehresman delivered both of Thorell's two children. He is her family doctor and her pediatrician. These small town practitioners get to know their patients on a personal level that doesn't happen in bigger cities.
And patients see their doctors outside of the clinic setting, which might make them more comfortable talking to those doctors about issues they face. Thorell teaches exercise classes at the local YMCA, and makes it a point to stop for a few words with Ehresman whenever she sees him sweating away on the machines.
"I think it makes communication better and there are factors of a person's life that can be picked up on that may go unnoticed in a larger system," Benkelman’s Rita Jones said.
Upside for doctors, too
Recruiting medical professionals to smaller towns is sometimes a challenge, but the ones who come and stay do so because small town living has its benefits for them as well. Surgeon Brenda Kopriva recently joined the staff at Community Hospital in McCook.
"The desire to be close to family brought us to McCook, but the people we met here cemented our choice," Kopriva said in a hospital press release. "My husband and I looked forward to returning to our rural roots – less traffic, less congestion, and more opportunities to genuinely care about your neighbors. Personally, we found just what we were looking for."
Further narrowing the gap between rural and urban healthcare, area hospitals and clinics are also updating their facilities and equipment to better serve future patients while also creating a medical environment that will attract physicians to rural settings.
"Community Hospital is in the midst of a transformation, integrating cutting-edge technology and beautiful surroundings," Kopriva said. "We are able to offer an impressive array of quality medical care for a facility of this size. This excellence is the direct result of a dedicated staff – the kind of people who genuinely care about their neighbors."
Millions spent on modern facilities
Community Hospital in McCook is nearing completion of one of the biggest building projects in the city’s history. The $29 million project was split into two phases, with the second phase to be completed next spring.
"We see ourselves as a regional leader in healthcare in southwest Nebraska," said Candy Crosby, public relations coordinator at Community Hospital. "Of course we want to give excellent healthcare to our patients, but we also want to have a system that invites providers out to this area by providing an excellent healthcare system."
Cambridge Memorial Hospital completed an extensive $21 million construction project in March 2011 with an addition and renovation of the former hospital space into the new Healthy Living Center. The Healthy Living Center is connected to the new hospital and features a wellness and rehabilitation center, gym, cafeteria, spa and sleep diagnostic center open to both patients and community members.
Lori Harding, Business Development Executive of Tri Valley Health System, said the entire construction project was estimated to create 370 full-time jobs and provide an economic stimulus of $49.6 million. Tri Valley Health System employs 210 people and estimates that more than $7.7 million in benefits and wages are distributed to those employees.
Phelps Memorial Health Center in Holdrege also plans to finish the first phase of a $20 million expansion project next spring. New patient rooms and surgery suites have been planned to incorporate today's technology while also addressing the needs of future patients and surgeons. PMHC also built the state-of-the-art Phelps Medical Plaza, which was completed in February 2008, and now houses Family Medical Specialties, Holdrege Pharmacy, PMHC's physical therapy center, an oncology clinic, and rotating specialty clinics.
Dundy County Hospital completed a new hospital laboratory in 2004, and Harlan County Health System finished a $6 million remodel and addition in 2007. Not only do these healthcare systems add to the community through excellent healthcare options, but they are also an economic driver in those communities as well.
"There are always great job opportunities when there is a healthcare facility in your community," Jones said. Dundy County Hospital employs 80 in the town of Benkelman, population 953.
Healthcare in south central Nebraska is looking forward as clinics and hospitals invest to meet the needs of tomorrow's patients while also providing cutting edge technology to attract top physicians to an area where patients are much more than a name on a medical record.
Who to Contact
McCook Community Hospital
Dundy County Hospital
Tri-Valley Health System
Harlan County Health System
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