HAZEN, N.D. (KXNET) — Rural communities in the United States have a 23% higher mortality rate than people in urban areas, because of the lack of access to healthcare.

The Sakakawea Medical Center in Hazen is working to close that gap.

Providers and staff of the hospital met to discuss what can be done to improve rural healthcare.

Members of the Sakakawea Medical Center are aiming to close the healthcare gap for people who live outside of urban areas.

The five-year-old rural hospital provides emergency services, general surgery, community health, physical therapy, and primary care.

Serving the majority of Mercer County, they continue to face rural healthcare problems.

“I think workforce is probably going to be the biggest thing that we’re all going to deal with. We’ve got people who are going to be retiring in the next five years. We don’t have enough people actually getting into the field, going into school to replace those that are retiring,” said Brian Williams, the CEO of the Sakakawea Medical Center.

Along with staffing issues, staff says the financial strain from the pandemic is still taking a toll, and recruiting surgeons and providers continues to be a struggle.

Oftentimes rural communities have to be more innovative than suburban hospitals in order to meet the need of the area.

“Obviously, we need to find ways through technology and others to help you in rural America,” explained Sen. John Hoeven.

The hospital does have great retention though.

And the center created a nursing LPN program through Bismarck State College, which has shown success in keeping the hospital’s nursing department fully staffed.

Officials also discussed the importance of new telehealth programs and tuition reimbursement for recruiting clinical staff.

Williams said, “Something that’s helped us a lot are some of those programs like ‘grow your own’ the LPN program. But also, some of those things for us to recruit doctors through Hertz and so forth, some of the loan reimbursement. You know you stay for so long, you get a certain amount paid off. Those are huge in helping us recruit and retain physicians and clinical staff in these kinds of areas.”

The local rural medical staff is dedicated to excellence in health care for their communities and continues to be innovative in new technology and patient care.

Through the Connect for Health Act, medical officials and providers will expand the use of telehealth to benefit Medicare and Medicaid patients in rural North Dakota.

The Sakakawea Medical Center serves 3,500 people in Mercer County, and even serves communities from Williston and South Dakota.