Closing of Rural Hospitals Leaves Towns With Unhealthy Real Estate

In March 2021, Jellico, TN, a town of about 2,000 residents in the hills of east Tennessee, lost its hospital, a 54-bed acute care facility. Campbell County, where Jellico is located, ranks 90th of Tennessee’s 95 counties in health outcomes and has a poverty rate almost double the national average, so losing its health care cornerstone sent ripple effects through the region.

“Oh, my word,” said Tawnya Brock, a health care quality manager and a Jellico resident. “That hospital was not only the health care lifeline to this community. Economically and socially, it was the center of the community.”

Since 2010, 149 rural hospitals in the United States have either closed or stopped providing in-patient care, according to the Cecil G. Sheps Center for Health Services Research at the University of North Carolina. Tennessee has recorded the second-most closures of any state, with 15, and the most closures per capita. Texas has the highest number of rural hospital closures, with 25.

Each time a hospital closes there are health care and economic ripples across a community. When Jellico Medical Center closed, some 300 jobs went with it. Restaurants and other small businesses in Jellico also have gone under, said Brock, who is a member of the Rural Health Association of Tennessee’s legislative committee. And the town must contend with the empty husk of a hospital.

Dozens of small communities are grappling with what to do with hospitals that have closed. Sheps Center researchers have found that while a closure negatively affects the local economy, those effects can be softened if the building is converted to another type of health care facility.

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