Rural Healthcare Workforce Shortages Defy Easy Solutions

John Commins, for HealthLeaders Media , February 27, 2013

"Does it discourage them from going into medicine because they may not understand how it is possible to repay very large debts of $170,000 to $180,000?" Grover says. "From that standpoint, if you are scaring off potential physicians from rural and underserved areas because of that huge price tag and those are the very students more likely to go back and serve those communities, then debt is a much bigger issue."

Many observers, including Grover, believe that the best way to find physicians willing to serve in rural and underserved areas is to recruit medical school students from those same areas.

"If you look at a lot of public medical schools like the University of Mississippi and the University of Arkansas, where they specifically are taking students from the state, that is part of their mandate as a public university," Grover says. "They do a much better job of keeping those doctors in their states and also going back into their communities, because that is where families are."

That is not as easy as it sounds.

"The challenge there is we can't start that at medical school or even college. It's a K-12 issue," Grover says. "People have to understand that this is an opportunity to aspire to do this when they are going through middle school. When you get to college it is often too late."

"The other thing we find is if you want to get physicians in rural areas, it's not just helpful that they are from rural areas. Their spouse has to be from a rural area. So, we have to get rural physicians and then match make for them," Grover says with a laugh, although it's not clear if he's joking.

John Commins is a senior editor with HealthLeaders Media.

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