Newton Medical Center is the second largest employer in the city of Newton, and also ranks second on the city's list of top taxpayers. According to the city of Newton, only one of the 105 Kansas counties has more doctors per capita than Harvey County.

Despite these statistics, sometimes the health care system can be overlooked as an economic driver in a community. A recent study from K-State Research and Extension seeks to highlight the economic contribution of Harvey County’s health care system and to quantify the financial impact made by the industry.

“I think we tend to underestimate the impact of health care services in our community," said Steve Kelly, CEO of Newton Medical Center. "We don’t always realize how important health care is to the county’s economic well-being.”

By the numbers

The K-State study is part of a state-wide initiative called the Kansas Rural Health Works program, sponsored by the Kansas Hospital Association. As part of the program, researchers have produced an analysis of the economic impact and potential of the health care sector in each of the counties in the state of Kansas.

According to the report, the health care sector accounted for an estimated 11.2 percent of Harvey County’s total employment, or about 2,914 jobs, in 2012.

The study’s authors calculated economic multipliers for eight health care sectors and estimated health care directly and indirectly accounted for 4,229 jobs throughout the county economy. These same sectors accounted for more than $182 million in total county income and about $42 million in county retail sales.

The importance of health care to Harvey County's economy is a trend that's echoed on a state and national level.

According to Wichita State University's 2014 Kansas Employment Forecast, the service sector — which includes health care — will see the largest growth in 2014. The sub-sector that includes education and health services will see an anticipated growth of 2.7 percent, adding 5,072 jobs.

Nationally, the Associated Press reports health care spending pumps a sizable amount of money into the economy. The nation's health care tab reached $2.8 trillion in 2012, accounting for 17.2 percent of the economy.

Other impacts

Although statistics can be impressive, Dr. John Leatherman — agricultural economist at K-State’s Office of Local Government and lead author of the report — looks beyond the numbers at some of the other impacts of health care.

He said access to affordable, high-quality local health care services is essential to attracting and retaining local businesses and retirees. A local health care system can sometimes be the “tie-breaker” in industry location decisions, and retirees view quality local health care as a “must have” service.

“Research has shown time and again that local health care and education are two enormously important factors for economic development, and both can be positively or negatively influenced by local action or inaction,” Leatherman said.

Looking ahead

Although health care has been among the fastest growing economic sectors for the past 30 years, the future will bring challenges for rural health care.

Thomas Bell, president and CEO of the Kansas Hospital Association, cited factors such as smaller markets, thinner profit margins, older demographics and lower incomes in rural areas, the cyclic nature of the agricultural economy, and differences between urban and rural Medicare payment rates.

"Maintaining local access to quality health care services in rural places requires organization, planning and community support,” Bell said. “... Increasing awareness of the link between the vitality of the local health care system and the local economy is the first step."