7 Reasons You Might Be Happier in a Rural Physician Job

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Are you happy in your current physician job? If the answer is “no,” or “not particularly,” you wouldn’t be alone. In a 2021 Medscape survey, less than half of physicians surveyed reported being very or somewhat happy at work. Pre-pandemic, that figure was 79%. While practicing medicine in the US has always had its challenges, clearly, COVID-19 has made conditions even worse. This aligns with a recent survey conducted by Jackson Physician Search and MGMA in which nearly half of physicians said, over the past year, they had considered leaving their employer (48%) or taking early retirement (43%).

Physicians everywhere are reevaluating their professional choices and weighing their current options. For those seeking a better work-life balance, more time with patients, lower cost of living, and potentially higher compensation, one option is increasingly attractive–rural physician jobs. In fact, in a new rural study from Jackson Physician Search and LocumTenens.com, 90% of physicians surveyed said they were open to considering a rural practice opportunity. This is great news for rural healthcare organizations, which are in desperate need of physicians.

The physician shortage in rural areas is nothing new, however, the demand is intensifying. According to reporting done by the AAMC, 20% of the US population lives in rural areas, but only 11% of physicians work there–and that figure may be shrinking. Due to the high volume of impending retirements, the number of practicing rural physicians will decrease by 25% by 2030. Additionally, the number of medical school students from rural areas is steadily declining, meaning the group most likely to practice in rural areas is shrinking.

The need for physicians in rural areas has never been greater, but fortunately, recent circumstances are making rural practice opportunities more appealing than they once seemed. Perhaps due to the impact of COVID-19, physicians are increasingly drawn to opportunities that grant them the autonomy, flexibility, and compensation they desire. Rural health organizations are often in a better position to meet these needs, meaning rural physicians have multiple reasons to be happier at work.

The Benefits of Rural Physician Jobs

Dr. K pulled his sportscar into a parking spot at the West Texas hospital where he has worked for three years now. Admittedly, the small, critical care hospital wasn’t exactly where he had envisioned himself going post-residency, but now, he and his wife, who was also employed by the hospital, couldn’t imagine living and working anywhere else. They are paid well, enjoy a family-friendly community, and their employer gives them the flexibility they need to be involved in the care of their young children. While most of his peers from med school and residency were still drowning in debt and working 60+ hour weeks, he and his wife have paid off the bulk of their loans (thanks to signing bonuses and loan repayment), built the home of their dreams, and still manage to find time for each other, their kids, and their hobbies. He and his wife often wondered why more residents and fellows didn’t seek out rural physician jobs. He wouldn’t trade it for anything.

Dr. K’s story demonstrates several of the benefits of rural physician jobs–a signing bonus used toward loan repayment, flexible schedules, a healthy work-life balance, and an affordable cost of living in a family-friendly community. It appears to be an ideal setting for a young physician (or physician couple) to build both a career and a family.

In the Jackson Physician Search and LocumTenens.com rural whitepaper, physicians practicing in rural areas were asked to reveal the top 5 factors that contributed to their decision to practice rural medicine. Improved work-life balance and higher compensation topped the list, cited by 46% and 44%, respectively. Not far behind was the “affordable cost of living,” cited by 42% of physicians practicing in rural areas.

1. Higher Compensation

In an article for NEJM Career Center, JPS President Tony Stajduhar shared that based on JPS data, physicians practicing in rural areas typically earn between 5% and 10% more than their urban and suburban counterparts. However, this does not account for incentives such as signing bonuses or loan repayment offers that are often used to sweeten the initial offer.

In the JPS and LocumTenens.com study, higher compensation was the most common reason physicians practicing in urban or suburban locations said they would consider rural medicine, cited by 64% of physicians surveyed. However, for those practicing rural medicine, compensation was cited as a reason by 44%.

2. Affordable Cost of Living

Even if the rural physician’s salary is not significantly higher, the lower cost of living in most rural communities can make the salary go much further than it would elsewhere. Especially as housing costs continue to rise all over the country, physicians in rural areas are more likely to find affordable housing than those in metropolitan areas.

3. Family-Friendly Environment

According to the JPS and LocumTenens.com whitepaper, 26% of rural physicians attributed their decision to practice in a rural area to their family’s preference or to their perception that it was a better place for children. Rural physicians are three times as likely to feel they live and work in a family-friendly environment than their suburban counterparts.

4. Work-Life Balance

Improved work-life balance is the most cited reason physicians say they decided to practice rural medicine. Perhaps because of flexible hours, job sharing, or simply a more relaxed work environment, rural physicians have more time to pursue hobbies and personal relationships that often get neglected by busy physicians in urban settings. This could explain why some studies report significantly lower levels of burnout in rural physicians than in their urban counterparts.

As Dr. A prepared for her day in the small, family medicine clinic in northern Idaho, she considered the patients on her schedule. On the job for over a year now, Dr. A was happy to say she recognized most of the names and could even speculate the cause of their visit. Her job as a rural family practitioner was nothing like the one she had left behind at a big, health system in Denver. There, she saw patients on a conveyer belt, never spending more than ten minutes with any of them before moving on to the next. Here, she had time to get to know them, ask about their lives, and help them make decisions that could improve their health. For this, they were grateful, and for the first time in her twenty-year career, she felt professionally fulfilled.

Dr. A’s story is similar to those of many physicians for whom the pandemic caused an awakening about what they did and did not want for their lives–both professionally and personally. Some felt let down by the way their employers handled the early days of the pandemic while others realized life was too short to spend endless hours feeling like a cog in the wheel. Whatever the specific reason, recruitment leaders report seeing an influx of physicians seeking jobs in small towns with a slower pace of life, where they can get back to the business of helping people.

5. More Time with Patients

According to the JPS and LocumTenens.com study, rural physicians are more likely to say their organization is “patient-focused.” The autonomy granted to rural physicians gives them more control over scheduling, meaning if they need more time with patients, they can make it. The lower patient volumes at rural health organizations may allow for more time with patients as well.

6. Professional Fulfillment

While physician job satisfaction is down on average, rural physicians are more likely to find satisfaction and professional fulfillment due to the autonomy, flexibility, and work-life balance often found in rural physician jobs.

Dr. T sat down for a cup of coffee at the hospital cafe after completing his morning surgeries. He’d see patients in clinic this afternoon, but then, he would have four full days off in which he and his wife could explore their new community. He’d spent his whole career working 10 and 12 hour days, 5 or 6 days a week, and he was tired of the constant hustle. Of course, after the last two years, what physician wouldn’t be? And yet, Dr. T still didn’t feel he was quite ready to hang up his white coat. This was one reason the job in the foothills of the Appalachians had been so appealing–the opportunity to work part-time. The fact that he’d also be building the mountain house of his retirement dreams was just an added bonus. It seemed too good to be true. He only wished he’d made the move sooner.

Like many physicians approaching retirement age, Dr. T was hoping to ease into retirement by practicing medicine part-time. According to a 2019 JPS study, only 17% of physicians said they planned to take a full-retirement, and nearly a third said they intended to continue working part-time. Rural healthcare organizations provide an ideal setting for these physicians as they may not have the patient volume to support a full-time physician, or if they do, they are more willing to allow job sharing or make other flexible arrangements to win the candidate over.

7. Flexibility

Due to the severity of the physician shortage in rural areas, rural healthcare organizations are often prepared to offer physicians more flexibility than they will find in other settings. Physicians in every stage of life can appreciate this perk–from those starting a family to those approaching retirement.

The many benefits of rural physician jobs make it easy to see why rural physicians may find more happiness at work. While higher compensation and improved work-life balance are the dominant reasons for considering and deciding to practice rural medicine, other factors such as more time with patients, more autonomy, flexibility, and lower cost of living all contribute to physician satisfaction. As more and more physicians weigh their employment options, there is reason to think you, too, could find what you are looking for in a rural physician job.

If you are seeking an opportunity likely to increase your job satisfaction, consider physician jobs in rural areas. A Jackson Physician Search recruitment team would be happy to speak with you about current rural physician job openings. Contact us today.

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