Susan is on the verge of completing her medical residency at a major teaching hospital. Now she’s considering all her options. She can look for a job at a major hospital or start her career as a locum tenens physician. She can look for that dream job in a major city or consider taking that first job in a rural area. What should she do?
While Susan may be a fictional character created for this article, the decisions she has to make are made by countless numbers of medical residents every year. Among the many questions they seek answers to is the question about practicing medicine in a rural location.
There is a natural tendency for doctors to seek out high-powered, high-paying jobs in major cities. There is nothing wrong with that. But big-city medicine has both pros and cons, as does rural medicine. Dismissing rural medicine without even considering it robs doctors of an opportunity to do something different.
Meeting in Desperate Need
Should doctors consider practicing medicine in a rural area? Absolutely. According to the National Rural Health Association (NRHA), rural patients in need of primary care are looking at a patient-clinician ratio of 39.8%. That means for every 100,000 people, there are just under 40 primary care physicians available. In major urban areas, the rate is closer to 53.3%.
This explains why so many rural patients do not access primary care on a regular basis. They wait until something goes wrong before traveling for miles to seek care at a city hospital or clinic. Doctors should absolutely consider rule medicine just because the need is there.
A Slower Pace
Practicing medicine is pretty fast-paced no matter where a doctor lives and works. But in a rural setting, the pace doesn’t tend to be as fast. For starters, there are fewer patients to see on any given day. The pace of life is generally slower as well. That makes for a more relaxed environment that facilitates a better work-life balance.
More Affordable Living
Data from the U.S. Census Bureau shows that the cost of living in rural areas tends to be lower than that of urban areas. Just consider housing as one example. Median home values in rural America stand at $151,300 compared to $190,900 in urban areas. Average monthly housing costs for rural families come in at about $1,271. The same housing costs in urban areas come in at about $1,561.
The statistics clearly show that it’s cheaper to live in a rural area in most cases. For the doctor, that means more money can be put toward retiring student debt and saving for the future. It also means more purchasing power when it comes time to eventually buy a house.
Locum tenens clinicians should seriously consider taking rural assignments for the purposes of professional development. The reality is that rural medical clinics and hospitals do not have the same kinds of resources available to them. They often have to make do. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, as it teaches physicians to be more creative and self-reliant.
Those things learned during rural assignments make a clinician more well-rounded and better able to see the big picture. For that reason alone, rural locum assignments are valuable from a professional development standpoint.
There is little arguing that rural communities are in desperate need of greater access to healthcare delivery. Both employed and locum tenens physicians can contribute to meeting that need by agreeing to practice in rural areas. Those who do will benefit right along with their patients.