Grant County Herald
Senator Amy Klobuchar’s visit to the Elbow Lake Medical Center on Saturday brought attention to the intricate balance between capability and utilization in rural healthcare settings. As part of her itinerary, Klobuchar met with an assembly of community leaders, including Larry Goetzinger from the hospital board, Mayor Deb Hengle, Sue Kulbeik of the Elbow Lake Chamber of Commerce, and Katie Johnson from Lake Region’s marketing and communications department, among others.
Fred Altamirano, a physician assistant, lead the senator’s tour, shared his insights into the medical center’s function as an essential healthcare provider in the region. “I think we are underutilized, and we have a lot of room to grow,” Altamirano expressed, highlighting the potential for expansion in patient care services at the facility. His commentary touched upon a common paradox within rural healthcare systems: ample capacity met with lower patient volumes compared to urban centers.
Altamirano emphasized the urgency of establishing more robust lines of communication with larger healthcare facilities to streamline patient care. “We need to somehow incorporate that thought process between the higher levels of care and us, rural hospitals here,” he remarked. Reflecting on the disparities in patient waiting times between larger centers and rural hospitals like Elbow Lake, Altamirano noted, “I don’t think there should be a delay in care at all, because you go to the bigger centers, and they are waiting for months and months to see a patient, and here sometimes, as you can see, we have crickets. And we shouldn’t. We should be able to help.”
The call for a task force or a central communication hub was a focal point of Altamirano’s narrative, where he envisioned a future with no delay in care owing to improved coordination between Elbow Lake and other healthcare entities, such as those in Fergus Falls. He recalled the pandemic period, where cooperation led to a healthier and more expedient care continuum, suggesting that such collaboration should be a model for ongoing operations.
Klobuchar’s visit also shone a light on the partnership between the West Central Area School District and the hospital. This initiative enables students to delve into the healthcare field, offering them the opportunity to gain practical experience and academic credit. Such programs are instrumental in inspiring the next generation of healthcare professionals, particularly in rural areas where the need for skilled medical staff remains high.
Financial efforts to support the hospital date back to 2012, when the community recognized the need for a modern facility. These efforts culminated in the opening of a new building in 2014, replacing the older structure, which now houses Maplewood Manor, which would have required costly renovations.
Lake Region Healthcare serves an expansive area with an 80-mile radius, encompassing towns from Fergus Falls to Morris. This coverage is vital as Elbow Lake Medical Center is designated as a critical access hospital—one of 76 in Minnesota out of 127 community hospitals. Such a designation is crucial, especially considering that the state houses 90 hospitals in rural areas, with approximately one-third of all hospital outpatient clinics, 138 out of 408, also situated in these regions.
As a Level III trauma center, Elbow Lake Medical Center is outfitted to offer immediate and comprehensive emergency care. Key elements of such centers include 24-hour emergency medicine coverage, the prompt availability of general surgeons and anesthesiologists, and a solid quality assessment program. They also play a supportive role for smaller hospitals, help in the transfer of patients needing advanced care, and engage in prevention and educational outreach within their communities.