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Thursday Apr 07, 2016

Rural Recruiting, Retention Proves Daunting

I went to college in St. Louis, med school in Cleveland and residency in the Houston suburbs. If you had asked me back then where I would be living when my training was complete, I never would have guessed a rural mountain town on the West Coast. But this city girl has grown to love rural medicine.

The beautiful scenery, family life and the ability to be present in the day-to-day functions of our home were the main reasons my husband and I first decided to leave an urban environment for a much quieter setting, but my desire to work with the underserved translated naturally to this new setting, as well.

Here I am talking with patient Gail Ruby during a recent office visit. Unfortunately, I'm leaving my rural practice in California because of the local hospital's lack of support for primary care.

I quickly realized that the struggles related to poverty and access don't discriminate based on location. Many of the same health challenges I saw in med school and residency infiltrate our small community, and my patients can attest to my value as a family doctor in the clinic, the hospital or in the operating room.

With so much that I have gained from being in rural practice, it pains me to have to leave. My contracted hospital has not been able to provide a work environment that supports me as medical director, and I find myself once again giving preference to work over family. That was the problem that led me to move from a big city environment in the first place.

Before I arrived here, there were only two obstetrical physicians covering more than 15,000 patients for 18 months. During the last five years, our community lost four physicians, including three family doctors. I am the only young primary care physician in town, and most of the practicing physicians are nearing retirement. So, as a new physician working in a great community, I am concerned by the ever-demanding needs of a small practice, little support and lack of new hires into the area.

Although my family loves this close community, I find myself sinking deeper and deeper into the inefficiencies of a practice that does not support physician leadership. More importantly, I realize that the hospital recruitment has been ineffective, and my work-life balance has suffered as a result.

Sure, there are alternative practice models, like direct primary care. However, it is difficult to limit a practice panel when a community is already suffering from attrition of physicians. One could open up his or her own solo practice, but the start-up costs and overhead can be prohibitive. Frankly, when faced with $100,000 of debt -- or more -- coming out of residency, it is intimidating to think of incurring even more debt to start a business.

The truth is that in small towns, the local hospital is the main financial resource for recruitment and retention of physicians. Factor in that most new physicians are looking for some kind of employment model, and the cost of recruiting usually cannot be absorbed by smaller practices. Despite the important role of primary care, especially in small communities, I find myself often defending my value -- to the community and the hospital -- as a family physician practicing obstetrics.

The cost of recruiting a family physician is roughly $100,000(www.aspr.org). But what is the value lost when you lose a family doctor? Research shows that having a family doctor cuts costs in unnecessary testing, reduced hospital readmissions and better continuity of care(www.annfammed.org). We also know that family doctors generate revenue for affiliated hospitals, to the tune of $1.5 million in annual revenue per FTE(medicaleconomics.modernmedicine.com).

Although doctors and hospitals functioned in a more segregated way in the past, it is now almost expected that hospitals collaborate with physicians in order to provide better population medicine. This is certainly a paradigm shift in focus and priorities, and at least where I live, is not well-received by the corporation that owns my local hospital.

One thing is certain. Traditional recruitment models have not attracted any doctors to my town in at least the last five years. Something has to change.

Leaving my town has real consequences in how medical care will be delivered, especially in relation to obstetrical care. We know that if rural communities lose their hospitals, it is a sentence for increased maternal-fetal deaths, more high-risk deliveries, more inappropriate home births and a loss of economic stability to the community. It also leaves the door open to poor health outcomes for the chronically ill.

So what is the answer? How do we appeal to young physicians and encourage them to invest in these areas? The answer may be much simpler than you think. If you build it, they will come.

Young physicians are looking for a place in which we can thrive both personally and professionally. As I continually stressed to my hospital, new recruits want to know that the people who work in that setting are supported, that innovation is welcomed and that the management or corporation is forward-thinking. We also want to be compensated appropriately for the level of work and expertise we offer. The new recruit wants to be in a place that supports and upholds the importance of the physician's role in the delivery of patient-centered care.

We aren’t afraid to work hard, but we don’t want to do so in vain. Although this is not unique to a rural setting, the financial component is amplified due to lack of resources compared to larger cities with larger markets.

My colleagues here tell me that these expectations represent quite a change in mentality from even 10 years ago, when physicians did not require as much from corporate entities. I’m not completely sure how this shift occurred, but part of the answer lies in the increased demand for data sourcing and the challenge of electronic health systems that do not communicate with one another. Couple that with reduced reimbursement rates for primary care, and we have a good start to answer that question.

Call it a generational change of mind or maybe a realignment of priorities. However you want to label it, this trend isn’t going away. Gone are the days when a person would work without being afforded respect and validation. As innate servant-leaders, family doctors have a tendency to gloss over those business aspects, but I hope our savvy new physicians will push all stakeholders into the right direction. I hope that we will return to a world where a family doctor is able to choose whatever practice model fits his or her lifestyle best, whether that is running a small business or as an employee.

My family will miss the community we have grown to love, but moving is the price to pay in order to have a continued presence in my home. As we prepare to move to another community with a small-town feel, I can definitely say that being part of a rural town has left us with a great impression of family life. I hope that my departure creates the pressure the local hospital needs to revamp strategies that will attract and keep primary care alive in this area. When my family returns to visit, I pray that the medical scene will beat to a different tune.

Marie-Elizabeth Ramas, M.D., is the new physician member of the AAFP Board of Directors.

Posted at 01:17PM Apr 07, 2016 by Marie-Elizabeth Ramas, M.D.

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