NOCONA (KFDX/KJTL) — In a town of nearly 3,000, Nocona General Hospital is crucial.

“As much as we can to keep people in the community where they’re not having to drive, most of our community is older so keeping them in town is always helpful so they don’t have to go out of town. We’re always working with out-of-town physicians to try and have them come in and do their own clinics here in Nocona, whether it’s at our clinic or in the hospital,” Nocona General Hospital CEO Lance Meekins said.

But Meekins says rural healthcare, like Nocona, faces many unseen struggles.

“Right now it’s very difficult to recruit out of town into a small town. We’re kind of at the end of the line when it comes to retention and recruitment,” Meekins said. “And it was extremely exacerbated by COVID. You had early retirements, you had individuals that left the industry as a whole to pursue other things, you had staffing agencies cherry-picking your best employees off so they could go elsewhere out of state.”

It’s the motivation behind the hospital’s ‘Grow Our Own’ program which offers tuition reimbursement.

“In return, we get a couple, three years at of those individuals for service and hopefully it turns into a long term, like myself, a long term commitment to the hospital. They fall in love with the place and if not, they go somewhere else, at least we’ve injected new blood into the healthcare workforce,” Meekins said.

Meekins says though, it’s going to take more than that to break the trend.

“At some point, the state’s gonna have to be involved. Projections are a large surplus coming up in the next legislative session, 25 billion plus, a drop of that aimed directly at the rural healthcare workforce retention would be key, whether that’s through loan forgiveness, incentivize individuals to work in rural areas, tuition reimbursement like we’re doing already,” Meekins said.

Until then, he wants the community and those looking for a hospital to call their work home, to understand what they’ve got going here on Park Road.

“In Nocona, specifically, it starts with a great community and that leads to a proactive, supportive board of directors who are always forward-thinking, understanding the rules and regulations that have to be followed but also understanding we must continue to pursue,” Meekins said. “Having physicians who understand the relationship that’s needed between a hospital and a medical staff is extremely important and then obviously having a dedicated workforce, a skilled workforce who act more like a family than colleagues and I think we check off those boxes.”

And it all stems from a staff that recognize the value in rural healthcare.

“They’re heroic in my opinion and we do everything we can for them, I think the community certainly supports them, we had outpouring support from the community understanding what they were all going through,” Meekins said. “I’ve been here 25 years which is a good run, but we’ve had employees that have been here longer than that and some who had been here 15 or 20 years have left and come back and understand the benefit of working in their hometown and we hope that’s a guide for others, especially for this younger generation that’s coming up, there’s nothing wrong with staying in Nocona.”

Not only is nothing wrong with it, Meekins believes there’s simply something special about it.

Meekins hopes to expand the ‘Grow Our Own’ program to current employees, prospective employees and into Nocona schools to recruit and retain hometown employees.

The hospital underwent a major remodel in 2019 at no cost to taxpayers.