Finding Dr. Right

Carrie Vaughan, for HealthLeaders News, March 4, 2008
It's no secret that rural areas have a hard time recruiting physicians. Yet according to a survey of nearly 2,000 physicians by, roughly 80 percent of doctors who have never practiced in a rural area are not opposed to the idea--at least in theory. So why do only 10 percent of docs choose to practice in rural settings, even though 22 percent of the population lives in rural areas?

The survey found that of those physicians who have never practiced in a rural area:

  • 26 percent never found the right opportunity.
  • 23 percent have never been offered a position.
  • 19 percent never considered it.
  • 12 percent don't want to live there.
  • 9 percent would only be interested in a specific rural area.
  • 4 percent don't want to work there.
  • 7 percent have other miscellaneous objections.

It appears that to get more physicians to choose rural medicine, docs need more exposure to rural jobs. Remember Benjamin Stone, the hotshot doctor in the 1991 comedy Doc Hollywood? Yes, I admit that I have seen this movie--in its entirety. But while the film may not have been Oscar-worthy, the fictional town had an interesting idea: force doctors to stay in your town long enough to see the virtues of rural medicine and the charm of your community. In the movie, Stone (Michael J. Fox) is traveling to a high-paying, low-stress job in California when a judge orders him to perform community service in the local hospital after a traffic accident. Of course, once he finally makes it to his big-money job out West, he realizes that he misses practicing small-town medicine--well, that and a girl. So he comes back.

Now, hospitals can't force physicians to stay in their communities by way of court order, of course. But offering more opportunities for docs to practice in rural areas may not be such a bad idea. For instance, the Pacific Northwest University of Health Sciences College of Osteopathic Medicine, which is expected to open this fall, plans to rotate medical students through hospitals, including rural facilities in the Pacific Northwest, to give them experience and confidence at those sites.

According to many healthcare leaders that I have spoken with, rural areas need to use everything in their arsenal when it comes to recruitment. Invite medical students to your facility to meet staff. Offer clinical rotations in your emergency department on nights and weekends. Use every method at your disposal to find potential candidates, including the Internet, radio, direct mail, cold calling, e-mail campaigns, career fairs and communication with training programs.

Physicians who are willing to practice in a rural area obviously have very specific ideas of what they are looking for, so when a doctor comes calling make sure to have a detailed itinerary, including a facility tour, meetings with key docs, a tour of the town (including real estate), and dinner at the best restaurants. You may never know exactly what a physician wants, but you can showcase the strengths of practicing medicine in a rural area. For example, highlight the fact that the administration is likely to be more responsive to its physicians in a rural community than in larger hospital settings.

Finally, perhaps the most important element is patience. Don't show your frustration even if you have been rejected more times than you would like to count. Stick with it--eventually your Dr. Right will come strolling through town. And just maybe it will be before physicians have come out of retirement to keep your hospital open.

Carrie Vaughan is editor of HealthLeaders Media Community and Rural Hospital Weekly. She can be reached at
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