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What to Know About The Rural Physician Shortage

By Tim Callahan18 Nov 2019
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With an ever-growing demand for physicians, a quickly aging population and a dwindling number of practicing physicians, there’s no denying the physician shortage is looming. In fact, projections from the AAMC (Association of American Medical Colleges) predict a shortfall of 46,900 to 121,900 primary and specialty care physicians by 2032.

This pending shortage impacts communities across the U.S, but rural communities are already approaching a crisis-level deficit with a ratio of one physician to every 2,500 patients, according to Becker’s Hospital Review.

Without available medical professionals, rural hospitals and medical facilities are shutting down at an alarming rate. As of early 2019, more than one-fifth of hospitals in underserved rural regions is on the brink of closure, according to Modern Healthcare, leaving hundreds of communities without adequate healthcare (such as excessive wait times and low access to specialized care), and thousands of workers without jobs.

Here’s what you need to know about the rural physician shortage:

Reasons Behind Physician Shortages in Rural Areas

In addition to the pay discrepancy between urban and rural healthcare professionals, there are a few additional reasons doctors are less interested in working in a rural setting:

  • Lack of support. If you’re one of the only physicians for miles, you can expect to always be on duty with inadequate support. Doctors in rural communities have fewer opportunities to consult with colleagues and, due to funding issues, may be forced to work with outdated equipment.
  • Fewer opportunities for professional growth. Physicians working for rural organizations have less access to knowledge and skill-building resources, such as learning cutting-edge techniques or familiarizing themselves with state-of-the-art technology.
  • Personal preference for urban communities. For some health professionals, especially younger doctors, the idea of living away from shopping, dining, nightlife and the camaraderie of other urban-based peers is less-than-enticing.

Future of Rural Medicine in America

A shortage of rural-based physicians means doctors who do live in rural communities are over-burdened and face a greater risk of burnout — which can only serve to exacerbate the shortfall. How can the medical community ensure there are physicians to replace rural doctors as they retire?

New solutions are emerging. For instance, the University of Alabama, together with the Rural Medical Scholars Program of Tuscaloosa, enroll college undergraduates from rural areas of the state of Alabama to shadow physicians in these underserved areas and reserve slots for them in medical school.

Of the 220 students who have been admitted to the program, just under 200 of them move forward to medical school, according to U.S. News and World Report. And approximately one-third of those students graduated to become physicians in rural Alabama.

In addition to programs like the one in Alabama, states offer tuition reimbursement programs for those medical school graduates who agree to practice in rural areas.

Addressing the Crisis

With a nationwide physician shortage on the horizon, it’s important physicians call for greater support for their colleagues in rural areas. Furthermore, it’s a good time for physicians to consider their options. While moving away from city-centers can be a significant transition, the lower costs of living and greater opportunity to make a difference in underserved communities can be incredibly fulfilling.

“Rural medicine is very rewarding,” says Amitabh Chandra, director of health policy research at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. “It’s a lot of hard work, and as a provider, you are going to find yourself wearing many hats, but it feels like you are doing something really meaningful. I wish more people could see that.”

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