A year after Renown Health launched telemedicine in Tonopah, concerns remain about the town’s lack of emergency medical services.
Renown Health, a Reno-based health care network, stepped in after Nye County Regional Medical Center closed its doors in August 2015 due to financial woes, leaving Tonopah residents more than 100 miles away from the nearest hospitals.
Nye County commissioners approved the lease with Renown Health on April 16, 2016, which allowed Renown to operate a clinic in the property formerly occupied by the Nye County Regional Medical Center.
Although Tonopah now has a clinic offering telemedicine, a remote health care service that allows patients to interact with primary and specialty doctors via videoconferencing technology, Nye County officials still have concerns, as Tonopah lacks a primary care physician, emergency room and urgent care.
Kenneth Eason, chairman of the Northern Nye County Hospital District Board of Trustees, said the entity is in communication with Renown Health about medical services in Tonopah.
“We continue to work with Nye County, the state of Nevada, Renown and other interested medical providers in hopes to restore improved medical service for Tonopah, and the surrounding area,” Eason said in an email. “As we are in the middle of negotiating several issues with the various contacts, I feel it would be inappropriate, at this time, to address specific questions.”
Progress in the last year
Kelsey Larsen, area practice manager at Renown Health, said the Tonopah clinic had 1,258 patient visits for the past year.
Since Renown Medical Group-Tonopah opened its doors on June 1, 2016, it added telemedicine for primary care and 30 specialty and lab services, and Larsen said officials and residents alike are excited about the change.
“Currently, we have more capacity to accept more primary care patients through our TeleHealth services, and that’s been very well embraced by the community,” Larsen said.
The Tonopah clinic is yet to secure a primary care physician or physicians’ group that would be willing to provide services in a remote part of Nye County. In the June 1, 2016 announcement that was published on its website, Renown Health said it planned to hire more staff. However, the company is continuing the search to this day.
Larsen said Renown Health has been going through “an active recruiting process” for a primary care physician in the past year.
“We haven’t found the right fit, but we are focused on evaluating what services are most important for the community, and making sure that we have a sustainable health care model for the community,” Larsen said.
Kirk Gillis, vice president of accountable care at Renown Health, said that from the company’s perspective, “everything is going well” with Renown Medical Group-Tonopah.
“We are currently open two half-days and two full days each week and have a full schedule of patients,” Gillis said in an email. “We are seeing adults and children for primary care needs, as well as urgent care. We are also providing specialty care through telehealth technology. Each patient is surveyed after their visit and the feedback we have received has been very positive.”
Meanwhile, Nye County’s volunteer emergency services still have to transport patients to out-of-town facilities where they can turn over the care of the patient to a physician in critical situations.
Since the medical center was shuttered, many Tonopah residents established care with primary care physicians outside of Central Nevada, traveling to Bishop, Hawthorne, Reno and Las Vegas.
Nye County Commissioner Lorinda Wichman, whose district includes Tonopah, said transport time for the county’s emergency services has increased as much as three times since the Tonopah emergency room was shuttered.
“Our volunteers are overworked, underpaid and understaffed, with transports that can take as much as 10 hours,” Wichman said.
Numbers provide insights
According to Nye County records, the Tonopah ambulance transported 405 patients in 2014, prior to the hospital’s closure. In 2016, it transported 245 patients.
Vance Payne, Nye County emergency management director, said the county now has about eight volunteers whose schedules are mostly self-chosen.
Payne said another 10 volunteers will come online as they finish their training to provide basic and advanced emergency services.
“Volunteers choose the hours they wish to work,” Payne said. “Due to extreme transport times and certification challenges, many have left the service. We continue to do classes and slowly rebuild with a core group.”
Typically, volunteers respond to six to 20 calls per week, Payne said.
Tonopah’s situation highlights the health care crisis in rural parts of Nevada and nationwide, where hospitals often don’t generate revenue to sustain the operations and medical professionals are hard to come by.
Nye Regional Medical Center was one of 79 hospitals that have been closed across the country since 2010, according to the North Carolina Rural Health Research Program, which tracks rural hospitals’ closures.
“Using telemedical services is gaining in popularity for many rural areas in much the same situation as Tonopah and Central Nevada,” Wichman said. “However, it doesn’t solve the problem with a lack of emergency room services.”
Contact reporter Daria Sokolova at firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter: @dariasokolova77