Why some doctors would consider moving to rural areas

Most doctors practice in cities and suburbs, but a new survey suggests many physicians are open to a move to the country.

Only 1 in 10 doctors practice in rural areas, but a new survey suggests many doctors would consider moving to the country with the right incentives.

The survey found 90% of doctors who were surveyed would at least consider relocating to a rural area. The survey was conducted by Jackson Physician Search, a permanent physician recruiting firm, and LocumTenens.com, a temporary physician staffing firm.

For doctors in urban and suburban areas who said they were willing to shift to a rural area, the top reason - by a good margin - was better pay, bonuses and benefits. Roughly 2 out of 3 doctors (64%) said better compensation would get them to think about moving to a rural area.

Other top reasons cited were the ability to have flexible or part time hours (47%); a better work-life balance (46%); a strong organizational culture (33%); and a more affordable cost of living (29%).

The survey gathered responses from 1,311 doctors, 169 administrators and 158 advanced practice providers. And the survey showed a gap in administrators evaluating what would draw doctors to a rural community.

Administrators viewed the affordable cost of living as the top draw to a rural area (58%), while they cited higher compensation as only the fifth most important factor (36%).

Tony Stajduhar, president of Jackson Physician Search, noted the discrepancy in responses between administrators and doctors but also suggested there’s an opportunity as well.

“This suggests that if physicians are well paid and assured of better work-life balance, a rural location may be less of a negative factor than once believed,” Stajduhar said in a statement accompanying the survey.

Compensation is a big factor in retention, the survey found, but again there was a gap between doctors and administrators. A majority of doctors (55%) cited compensation as the top factor in choosing to stay with a provider, compared to 37% of administrators.

Doctors who are already practicing in rural areas said the better work-life balance was the top reason (46%), followed closely behind by better compensation (44%) and the more affordable cost of living (42%).

Administrators said the top reasons doctors declined a job offer in a rural community were the location, compensation and the concerns of a spouse or significant other. A white paper accompanying the survey cited Robbie Dewberry, CEO of Mitchell County Hospital in Colorado City, Texas. “The biggest challenge we have is getting recruits to visit a rural setting,” Dewberry stated in the report.

While healthcare advocacy groups have pointed to a nationwide shortage of doctors, the lack of doctors in rural areas is a substantial challenge.

About 20% of the American population live in rural communities, but only 10% of the nation’s doctors are practicing in rural areas, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Roughly three quarters of America’s rural counties have been designated as health professional shortage areas.

The survey indicated some doctors would consider a temporary position in a rural area, with 72% saying they would try such an assignment. Such assignments have typically been appealing to younger physicians at the beginning of their careers and doctors who are close to retirement or phasing into part-time work.

The report also suggested rural providers can seize an opportunity to recruit Gen X physicians to rural areas, since they want a better work-life balance, would like to incorporate telehealth, and are less satisfied with their careers than some other groups.

One in three doctors (33%) said the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated their retirement plans, the survey found. Roughly 1 in 10 doctors (9%) said they opted to move to a rural community due to the pandemic.

Last fall, President Biden’s administration announced an investment of $1.5 billion to train more doctors and nurses and add more diversity to the healthcare workforce. The package will offer scholarship and loan assistance to aspiring doctors and nurses. In return, recipients commit to working in underserved areas for a certain amount of time.