Demand for physicians in rural areas has never been greater. According to the AAMC, 20% of the US population lives in rural areas, but only 11% of physicians work there — and that figure is likely to decrease. Due to a projected increase in physician 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.
As the Regional Vice President of Recruiting for Jackson Physician Search, Western Division, I often speak to physicians who are hesitant to consider rural practice opportunities. They have preconceived ideas about what life in rural medicine may be like, but the reality is not necessarily what they assume. In most cases, rural physicians earn competitive compensation, have a healthy work-life balance, and experience greater autonomy than their urban and suburban counterparts. They also have an opportunity to make a real difference in the lives of patients, who often have limited access to healthcare.
Keep reading to find out if some common assumptions about rural physician jobs are fact or fiction.
Rural vs. Remote Physician Jobs
Before addressing the common assumptions about rural physician jobs, it’s important to note that the term “rural” can be defined in a number of ways. The Health Resources and Services Administration uses a combination of definitions to determine which organizations are eligible for rural health funding. A community with a population below 2,500 is considered rural, but rural can also describe a town with up to 49,999 people if the area is not attached to a larger metropolitan area.
It’s important to understand the definition of rural that is being used when discussing rural physician jobs, as the opportunities and challenges of working in a rural setting can vary depending on which definition of “rural” is being used. For example, a “rural physician job” might refer to a family medicine physician serving as the sole provider for a remote community of 2,000 people. However, it might also refer to a general surgeon at a regional hospital in a town of 30,000. While both of these are “rural physician jobs,” the lives of each physician will be considerably different. Often, the fears physicians have about rural jobs may be legitimate concerns in smaller, remote areas but are less likely to be true in other rural communities.
Assumption #1: Lack of Amenities in Rural Physician Jobs
One of the most common concerns I hear from physicians about practicing in a rural setting is that they will not have access to the same amenities they are used to — good schools, popular stores, quality restaurants, etc. While these things may be harder to come by in truly remote locations, many rural communities have a variety of popular chain stores, restaurants, movie theaters, and public and private schools. However, it is true that some rural communities may not have as many options as urban areas.
On the other hand, rural communities often make up for not being as commercialized with outdoor recreation and beautiful scenery. Many nature enthusiasts find rural physician jobs ideally situated near parks, rivers, mountains, etc., which are perfect for fishing, rafting, hiking, or skiing.
Fact or Fiction? While there may be some truth in the assumption that rural communities have fewer amenities, it largely depends on the size of the community, proximity to other towns, and availability of transportation, i.e., an airport. It is important to do your research and visit the community before making a decision about whether to work there. Many times, physicians considering rural opportunities are surprised by the variety of options for shopping, dining, entertainment, and education.
Assumption #2: Rural Physicians Never Get a Day Off
Physicians are often concerned that, as the sole provider of care in the community, they will work around the clock. The truth, however, is that rural physicians often have better work-life balance than urban physicians. A joint rural physician recruitment study from Jackson Physician Search and LocumTenens.com reported 46% of rural physicians said “improved work-life balance” was one of the top factors influencing their decisions to work in rural medicine.
In most rural jobs, call is shared among multiple physicians. Even in remote areas where one physician may be the sole provider of care, administrators recognize the need to provide support in the form of an advanced practice provider or locum. Regardless, physicians should review the contract and confirm there is a limit to how many days per month they are expected to be on call.
Fact or fiction? This assumption is largely fiction. Rural physicians often work at a slower pace, see fewer patients per day, and have more control over their schedules. Preventing burnout is a high priority for rural administrators, so they usually do whatever is needed to ensure physicians have a healthy work-life balance.
Assumption #3: Rural Physicians Have a Broader Scope of Practice
Physicians often correctly assume that practicing in a rural setting means they must be comfortable providing a wider range of services than they might see in an urban setting. Rural physicians are often the first point of contact for patients of all ages dealing with a wide variety of medical issues. In an urban setting, a provider might be quick to refer patients to a specialist for specific conditions. However, in a rural setting, there may be fewer specialists available, so rural physicians must be able to treat a wider range of conditions.
This can be a challenge, but it also presents an opportunity for rural physicians to gain experience and expertise in a variety of areas. Rural physicians must be able to think critically and make decisions on their own without the benefit of immediate access to specialists. They must also be able to work closely with patients and their families to provide comprehensive care. As a result, rural physicians often have closer relationships with patients and their families. They may have more opportunities for community involvement and a greater ability to make a real difference in the lives of their patients.
Fact or fiction? This truth about rural medicine presents a growth opportunity for physicians at any stage of their careers. Because there are fewer specialists in rural areas, primary care physicians practice at the top of their licenses, which would be less likely in an urban setting.
Assumption #4: Compensation is Extreme in Rural Physician Jobs
Ideas about rural physician compensation vary, but they tend to be extreme. Some have heard about huge bonuses and loan repayment and think all rural physician jobs come with big compensation packages. Others tend to think that, without the high volume of patients seen by urban physicians, rural jobs won’t have the same earning potential. In this case, the truth lies somewhere in between.
Indeed, many rural jobs come with sweeteners such as signing bonuses, housing assistance, or loan repayment. Rural health organizations are eligible for government-funded grants that can be used for these purposes. Additionally, individual physicians may also be eligible for government-funded loan repayment programs when they work for qualifying organizations.
As for patient volume and income potential, this can vary depending on a number of factors. Volume may be lower, but rural physicians have little to no competition for patients. According to a 2022 study by the Medical Group Management Association, the median annual compensation for physicians in rural areas was $207,210, compared to $200,000 for physicians in urban areas.
Fact or fiction? The idea that rural physicians always earn significantly more or less than physicians working in metro areas is fiction. However, overall, rural physician compensation is competitive with urban physician compensation. In addition to higher salaries, rural physicians may also be eligible for recruitment incentives such as large sign-on bonuses, housing assistance, and loan repayment. When you consider the lower cost of living in rural communities, the overall financial picture for rural physicians is very attractive.
The Rewards of Rural Physician Jobs
Practicing rural medicine is not without challenges; however, the rewards may carry more weight. Rural physicians often earn higher salaries, enjoy a better work-life balance, and experience more autonomy than their urban and suburban counterparts. They also may feel more professional fulfillment as they are stepping up to provide care in the communities that need it most.
If you are interested in learning more about the challenges and rewards of rural physician jobs, the recruitment team at Jackson Physician Search is eager to assist. Reach out today to learn more, or start searching for rural physician jobs online now.
About Helen Falkner
As the daughter of a physician, and an Iowa native, Helen has witnessed firsthand the impact that a great physician can have on a community. She joined Jackson Physician Search at the company’s headquarters in Alpharetta, GA, as an entry-level Research Consultant in 2012. Through her consistent success as both an individual contributor and manager, Falkner progressed quickly to Partner in 2018 and assumed her role as Regional Vice President of Recruiting for JPS’s Western Division in October of 2020. In January 2021, she relocated to the firm’s Denver office and leads a team of successful physician recruiters while actively continuing to recruit for her clients.