OUTLOOK 2024: PHN on the front lines of rural healthcare, CEO says

Feb. 10—SHARON — Serving rural populations is the heart of Primary Health Network's mission, but its been getting a lot harder, the organization's head says.

Dr. George Garrow, PHN's chief executive officer, said offering healthcare to rural areas has become challenging for the Sharon-based, non-profit organization.

"In many rural areas, the access to healthcare facilities and services falls short compared to their urban counterparts, resulting in notable disparities in healthcare delivery," Garrow, who also is a practicing physician said in an interview. "Here in Western Pennsylvania and in other rural regions served by Primary Health Network, we are witnessing a concerning trend of population loss, significantly impacting the demand for healthcare services, and posing challenges in recruiting healthcare professionals."

The scarcity of healthcare facilities and professionals in rural areas further complicates proving seamless services, he noted.

"These issues emphasize the urgent need for tailored strategies to address the unique healthcare landscape of our rural communities," Garrow said.

His thoughts were echoed in a Jan. 31, hearing focusing on rural population loss held by the Center for Rural Pennsylvania at Thiel College in Greenville. Garrow didn't speak at the event. But others testified the drop in population is reaching crisis levels for schools, municipalities and healthcare providers.

"Population loss in rural areas poses challenges for our organization in maintaining a robust patient base and attracting healthcare workers," Garrow said.

PHN is tackling the problem by actively targeted recruitment efforts, seeking to attract healthcare professionals to serve in rural communities, he said. Also, online telehealth services are used to ensure access for patients not only from offices but consultations and monitoring from patients' homes.

Mobile health services are also called into service, he said, along with strengthening community connections.

"To achieve this, we are actively engaging community health workers, nurses, and ambassadors," Garrow said. "This dedicated team plays a crucial role in not only facilitating access to healthcare but also in bridging the gap between the healthcare system and the community."

These teams also create trust and encourages local talent to contribute to the healthcare workforce, he added.

PHN also often has to contend with rural areas having high poverty rates. As a Federally Qualified Health Center, PHN offers a sliding fee discount scale or income-based payment model.

"This allows us to extend our services while accommodating the financial realities of our community members," Garrow said.

Further, the non-profit's healthcare team drives to understand the community they serve, which is vital is aiding patients navigate the financial assistance programs and explore options and resources. PHN also forms partnerships with local businesses, educational institutions, and other non-profit organizations

Since 2019 PHN has been part of the Age-Friendly Health System — a program for the elderly, he noted.

"This includes comprehensive services such as geriatric care, chronic disease management, and preventive measures," Garrow said.

This includes the "4Ms" initiative:

— What matters

— Medication

— Mentation (mental activity)

— Mobility

And PHN collaborates with the Penn State Ross and Carol Nese College of Nursing to enhance care for older patients.

PHN also is working on mobile dental services. The healthcare provider recently retrofitted a mobile health unit for the service.

Since transportation services are often lacking in rural areas, the combination of telehealth and mobile used by PHN helps connect patients to the healthcare system.

Since rural populations often have limited access to healthcare, PHN stresses preventative care and identifying health issues early.

"Additionally, we actively engage community health workers and nurses to conduct health education and outreach programs," Garrow said. "This collaborative effort aims to encourage early intervention and promote regular health check-ups within the community."

Through all of its resources and programs he said PHN has a goal.

"Through these concerted efforts, we strive to improve overall health outcomes and wellbeing in the communities we serve," Garrow said.