Rural ND sees need for better access to basic healthcare

Healthcare facilities and availability in rural North Dakota can seem far and few, depending on where you live.

With more than 750,000 people living in our state, it’s estimated that about half of North Dakota residents live in rural areas, that’s according to the Economic Research Service.

There are only 53 rural health clinics in the state.
That means there’d be more than seven thousand patients seeking basic healthcare from any individual clinic.

Becky Farr shows us what some areas are doing to keep their communities healthy.

Bottineau, North Dakota has a population of about 2,255 people.  For all 2,000+ people, the only local option for basic healthcare – for years – was St. Andrews Health Center.

St. Andrew’s CEO Alfred Sams said the clinic sees an average of more than 9,000 patients a year, covering populations within about a 30-mile radius of Bottineau.

The hospital covers most major health care needs, but immediate walk-in care is where a larger need seems to be.

Just last month the first walk-in clinic, Pyramid Health, opened in the area.
“Frequently, people would mention that it was tough to get into the local clinic and that they were having to drive elsewhere, as far away as Minot to come in for walk-in type care .. and it was basically a burden for them,” said Mark Koivula, nurse practitioner and owner at Pyramid Health, said.

St. Andrews remains as the only place to see a medical doctor in Bottineau, while Pyramid Health will serve the needs for non-emergent care.

“It’s getting harder and harder to find healthcare that you can get into in a timely manner,” Koivula said.

Koivula says the feedback is positive, with people happy to get in quickly.

So far, about one-third of his patients are coming in from Westhope.

Trinity Health closed its Westhope clinic in 2017. But in June, Pyramid Health will open an office there.

“I notice the older people, it is so hard for them to drive to Minot or to Bottineau.”
Diane Lesmann, a Registered Nurse from Westhope, just joined Pyramid Health. She sees the need for more accessible care in her hometown.

“They have a right to have it right there,” she said. “A community like Westhope is very close, it’s like a family and they want to know each other so then we help one another out.”

Soon, the town of fewer than 500 people will have access to basic care three days a week.

With these two new walk-in clinics in the area, the need for serious care remains.
You must travel 60 miles from Westhope or 80 miles from Bottineau to reach Minot—the closest hospital for life-threatening care.

And that’s a concern for residents beyond north central North Dakota. Residents 100 miles to the SE in Harvey face the same healthcare concerns. But they, too, are working to meet the needs of the community.

Like St. Andrew’s, St. Aloisius Medical Center in Harvey is equipped with a critical access hospital, a long-term care unit and several other services like radiology or lab work.

St. Aloisius was founded 85 years ago, but just opened its walk-in clinic last August.

(Beth Huseth/RN, community liason, St. Aloisius) “It was a great hospital and people went into the hospital,” Beth Huseth, registered nurse and community liaison at St. Aloisius said. “What we’re seeing now is many more things are outpatient because you can really get better, quicker, at home.”

Before that, there were only two other basic care options in the area.

“There’s that saying, if you build it, they’ll come and we are seeing people come,” Mike Zwicker, CEO & president at St. Aloisius Medical Center said.

Now, the clinic sees almost 600 patients a month and Zwicker says it’s likely to top a thousand patients a month by its one year anniversary.

He says responding to the needs of the community, which includes Harvey’s estimated population of 1,700 plus surrounding towns, is what will keep St. Aloisius – and the community – alive for many years to come.

“With the patients that we are seeing, we have to expand,” he said. “We have to grow. We have to accommodate that,  because the last thing we want to do is say, ‘we’re here for you, yet we can’t take care of you.”

Hospital administrators say part of the challenge of providing basic healthcare isn’t always proximity – timeliness is huge, too.
That’s why the clinics mentioned in this story are working to establish more providers so that patients can be seen as soon as possible.

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