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Doctors Wanted: Benefits of Practicing Medicine in Rural America

Jackson Physician Search
November 17, 2021

The healthcare needs of the 46 million Americans living in rural areas have never been greater. In many of the country’s smallest towns, there are no nearby physicians, dentists, or psychiatrists. In contrast to their urban neighbors, rural patients must drive long distances to access the healthcare services they need. As a result, they often choose to delay routine care, which can lead to long-term consequences for their health. In fact, those living in rural areas are statistically more likely to succumb to cardiovascular disease, lung disease, and various cancers.

The maldistribution of providers is stark. Twenty percent of the U.S. population lives in rural areas, but only 11% of physicians choose to practice there. The primary care physician to patient ratio in the most remote areas exceeds 1:3,500; far higher than the national average. The sheer volume of patients that a rural doctor manages is astronomical and inevitably challenging. Yet, as many of the physicians who chose early on in their career to work in a rural setting would testify, it can also be very rewarding.

Finding Your Calling

Pursuing a career in medicine isn’t for the faint of heart. Doctors, like you, usually feel a deep calling to serve and care for those around them — who else would put themselves through the rigors of medical school and several additional years of training, often at the expense of personal finances, work/life balance, and mental health? Before most doctors get their first post-training job, they’ve already accumulated more than $200,000 in debt. Sound familiar? Also, many of your peers are struggling with physician burnout and even depression.

While rural healthcare facilities have long struggled to recruit, the pandemic is causing some providers to re-evaluate their priorities. If you’re open to giving rural healthcare a go, you, too, might just find it to be a much-needed respite.

Dr. L, a family medicine physician who was nearing the completion of her training, had just begun her job search when an opportunity at a 25-bed hospital in central Minnesota presented itself. While she had strong ties in the state, she had never imagined herself practicing there or in any small community. As she soon discovered, the benefits far outweigh any perceived drawbacks. More autonomy in how she would practice medicine, student loan payoff, and administrative staff that demonstrated its commitment to open, two-way communication was a lure she couldn’t pass up. Now, she can’t imagine practicing elsewhere.

Her experience isn’t unique. Of the 63,000 primary care and mental health professionals that have been placed in rural areas and received student loan pay-off benefits from the National Health Service Corps (NHSC), many have elected to stay long past their initial commitment. For these doctors, it seems that how they are enabled to practice medicine is a much bigger priority than where they do it. Having a good work/life balance, an influential voice, and a deep affection for their patients is something they aren’t willing to leave behind for the conveniences of a city.

Doctors Wanted – Great Benefits

The pandemic has altered the physician recruitment landscape with more doctors than ever actively seeking new opportunities. Doctors are desperate for relief from the stress and uncertainty they’ve been facing during the last two years. If you are among them and open to considering a change, keep reading to learn some of the many benefits available to you outside of the big cities.

Scope of Practice Growth

When you are one of few physicians within a community, you learn to rely on your skills, training, and instincts to care for patients with needs outside your original scope of training. In a rural setting, you may not have specialists to rely on, so your knowledge will grow in nearly every aspect of medicine. This can serve you well within the community, or later when seeking new opportunities.

Autonomy to Practice Medicine Your Way

In a recent Jackson Physician Search survey of physicians and administrators, 43% of the doctors said they wanted more autonomy in practicing medicine. For most physicians working in a rural setting, autonomy is a major component of the job, especially considering that you’ll find yourself practicing outside the narrower scope of your training, as mentioned above.

Leadership Responsibility

Rural physicians are relied on for their natural leadership skills and generally have much greater input into how things are done in the facility. You will have the opportunity to leave a lasting impact on everything from the organizational culture to policies and procedures. Physicians who practice rural medicine are typically introduced to and responsible for much more than their urban counterparts.

Respect of the Community

Rural physicians find themselves on a first-name basis with many of their patients. You will invariably see them around town, at school functions, and in other social settings. If you have never lived in a small town, it may take time to get used to this unique dynamic, but you will soon see how rewarding it can be to establish this level of respect, trust, and community involvement with your patients.

Compensation and Benefits

Rural opportunities often come with higher compensation – as much as 10% is common. For those just out of training with student loans to pay back, those extra dollars will make a significant difference in your quality of life now and later. Plus, perks such as signing bonuses, relocation expenses, housing allowances, and travel stipends often accompany a job offer.

Student Loan Forgiveness

Financial incentives toward student loan debt repayment have become common in rural and urban healthcare systems. Rural physicians often receive offers of $75,000 – $100,000 in loan forgiveness, sometimes more.

Lower Cost-of-Living

Although it is not controlled by the healthcare system, a significant financial incentive for accepting a rural physician job is the difference in the cost-of-living. From housing costs to taxes, rural communities are where physicians can make their salary go much farther than in larger metropolitan areas.

Work and Life Perks

Physicians considering rural opportunities often find these positions offer more flexible schedules, which can lead to a decrease in burnout and an increase in time outside of work to conduct medical research, pursue personal interests, and hang out with family.

Job Sharing for Specialists and End-of-Career Doctors

There are many variables to consider when it comes to patient volumes and the number of physicians needed for coverage in rural health systems. This issue especially rings true for specialty services, with many systems resorting to creative solutions such as job sharing to cover the gaps. In some cases, multiple facilities within a geographic region will share a job. However, other times, a full-time job is simply divided between two doctors in the same facility. Similar to being considered part-time, job sharing may be a perfect opportunity for soon-to-be-retiring physicians.

If practicing in a rural setting has piqued your interest, Jackson Physician Search has a team of healthcare industry professionals to help you find an opportunity anywhere in the country that meets your personal and professional needs. Our experience and industry contacts can make all the difference in finding you a position that you’ll be happy in for years to come. Search jobs now.

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