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Rural Hospitals Up Their Care Game for Stroke Patients


Tuesday, May 3, 2022   

Despite a more challenging environment, rural hospitals still are finding ways to provide critical care. That includes stroke patients, and South Dakota's medical community says keeping these facilities open is necessary in seeing better outcomes.

May is National Stroke Awareness Month, and a family physician with Avera Health in Parkston said treatment has really evolved for these patients. Dr. Jason Wickersham pointed to specialized facilities where neurologists provide new therapies that can drastically improve a person's recovery.

But he said for rural residents, local health-care centers are a key first step.

"Even in a rural facility now, I think the training is very good," said Wickersham. "The ball gets going right away. The CAT scan gets done. If they meet criteria, they'll get a clot-buster drug in our rural facilities that don't have that neuro-interventionalist right there."

He said that buys them time before a patient is transported to a regional stroke center.

But financial stress has left many rural hospitals in danger of closing. This fall, South Dakota voters will decide whether to expand Medicaid, a move supporters say would make smaller health-care operations more stable.

Despite federal incentives, some skeptics worry about costs to the state. But supporters stress the federal government covers most of those costs, and the state's share is offset by economic activity though local care.

Tony Burke - advocacy campaign Manager for the American Heart Association of South Dakota - said having previously worked as a first responder, he knows timing is critical after a stroke.

"Whether it's a few minutes or a few seconds," said Burke, "it really does matter because the longer a person is in a stroke, the more damage there's going to be to the brain. So, it's critically important to have those resources close and local so that they can get access to the best possible care."

The Association feels that with financial relief, that first line of defense stands a greater chance being there for stroke patients. And Wickersham said keeping it local means maintaining a sense of trust through follow-up care.

"Sometimes those patients need some fairly intensive physical therapy, occupational therapy, maybe speech therapy," said Wickersham. "So, a lot of our rural facilities are set up with those services."

The Heart Association says stroke is the leading cause of preventable disability in the U.S.

Disclosure: American Heart Association of South Dakota contributes to our fund for reporting on Health Issues, Poverty Issues, Senior Issues, Smoking Prevention. If you would like to help support news in the public interest, click here.

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