SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KELO) — It’s something most of us need access to at some point — reliable health care. In rural and remote areas, getting that care can mean driving many miles to and from the closest clinic or hospital.

Gregory — a community that’s home to around 1,300 people in south central South Dakota.

“If you look at it on a map, there’s really nothing. I mean, we’re 120 miles from Mitchell, which is the closest Walmart, but we draw a huge patient base from northern Nebraska, up as far as Pierre, all the way out to the Rosebud and the Pine Ridge reservations,” said Tony Timanus, director of the Avera Gregory Hospital.

Timanus says they see as many as 20,000 patients per year.

“It’s a much bigger facility than you think you’d find out here,” he said.

Avera opened the new facility in Gregory at the beginning of this year, and before, they had their long-term care facility, hospital and clinic in three separate buildings. Now, they’re all under one roof.

“Giving our employees, community and staff the ability to work inside of a space that that would fit them, but we did add some new services. We have a new MRI. We’ve increased the size of our dialysis unit. We’ve got more clinic exam rooms and just overall, just an upgraded nicer feel,” Timanus said.

Kacie Birkel works as a laboratory manager in the new $41 million facility.

“Everything’s coming together. It’s just like getting a new job. You know what you’re doing, but the flow, you have to get used to it, and so that’s what we’re all experiencing right now is just getting in our flow and how to get everything going efficiently and out correctly,” Birkel said.

Kevin Post, chief medical officer of Avera Health, says rural health care has been important to the health system since its founding.

“We have just over 60 specialties ready to serve. I think, for facilities within our rural communities, we have 37 hospitals. Many of them are hospitals that are less than 25 beds that serve our critical access communities,” Post said.

Post worked over 10 years in a small town in primary care and says having that care close to home is crucial.

“You may be delivering a baby and helping life come into the world, and in the same day, holding the hand of your nursing home resident who is passing from this life, and really that is the full scope of what health care is. So I believe as we move forward into rural care within the Midwest, Avera will stay focused on keeping that care close to home for our patients,” Post said.

About 60 miles north of Gregory, the Sanford Chamberlain Medical Center is the only hospital that sits on Interstate 90 between Mitchell and Rapid City.

“Emergency room wise, we see around 4000 E.R. visits a year. Again, that’s because of our proximity to the interstate and the size of the communities that we serve, including Fort Thompson and Lower Brule,” said Erica Peterson, senior director of Sanford Chamberlain and Pierre.

And whether its orthopedics, dialysis or any other specialty, having access to that care locally saves local patients a lot of time.

“Sioux Falls round trip from here is 280 miles, and that’s a long ways to go when you don’t feel good or you just need preventative care,” Peterson said.

Those long distances can mean life or death, especially when you factor in South Dakota’s long winters. Having a reliable facility with access to virtual care are essential.

“We are truly managing that patient with the expertise in Sioux Falls, but we’re managing them here and pulling that clinician in as we manage their care here for a couple of days so that they can stay alive and we can get them to Sioux Falls,” Peterson said.

And through the touch of a button, a doctor from hundreds of miles away can be right there.

“It can be pretty lonely as a patient out there or as a solo specialist or care provider, but now you’re not alone. You’re part of a whole integrated team and connecting with the right technology and infrastructure so that you can treat the patient in the best way possible,” Sanford Virtual Care president Brad Schipper said.

Take a look at Sanford’s footprint across the upper Midwest. Virtual care ties all these locations together to provide more access to additional services.

Courtesy: Sanford Health

“Regardless of zip codes, how can you give somebody the same level of world class care that they would get if they were in Sioux Falls or in Rapid City or something with a little bit more population?” Schipper said.

Whether you are at Sanford or Avera, these professionals say telehealth has really accelerated the past few years and will be used even more in the future.

“A decade ago there was concern that rural health care was going to be dying in America and within the Midwest. And I think the pandemic has really brought forward some great opportunities of how we can deliver specialty care close to home,” Post said.

“One of the silver linings of the pandemic, if there was one, was for virtual care. We had to figure out how to reinvent how we otherwise we’re doing things, and it forced us to get real creative, real fast,” Schipper said.

And that creativity is already saving lives and providing more advanced care options close to home.

“I look for rural health care to always be able to provide services to the people that choose to live here, choose to be the farmers and ranchers and the community members in our small towns,” Peterson said.

The health care professionals we talked to brought up workforce challenges in their rural facilities, but also added that telehealth has helped with that challenge as well.

To see a story focused just on telehealth that aired earlier, you find it here.