Locum Tenens Physicians are Warming to Rural Practice Settings, According to Report

(Edited from white paper & news release from Jackson Physician Search/LocumTenens.com, 2/23/2022; Medscape article by Ken Terry, 2/24/2022; Medical Economics article by Richard Payerchin, 3/1/2022)

While rural areas typically experience chronic physician shortages, a study conducted recently by Jackson Physician Search and LocumTenens.com indicates the difficulty of recruiting new doctors to rural practice may be easing.

The survey responses of 1,311 physicians and 169 administrators, as well as 158 advanced practice providers, indicated that 90% of urban and suburban physicians are at least somewhat open to considering rural practice.

Jackson Physician Search President Tony Stajduhar said the pandemic has made a difference in how physicians think about practicing in rural areas.

COVID-19 Changed Priorities

Stajduhar noted that with COVID-19 having hit major cities pretty hard, a lot of physicians are stressed out, and some are burned out: “The pandemic has made people rethink what’s important and whether it’s all about living in a city and making a higher salary. Are there benefits to getting away where the pandemic isn’t going to hit you as hard because the population is more spread out?”

“The pandemic has made people rethink what’s important and whether it’s all about living in a city and making a higher salary.”

Also, there’s a new emphasis on the need for work-life balance that might be easier to find in a rural area, he said.

Titled Rural Physician Recruitment and Staffing Survey Results: Strategies for Recruiting Physicians to Work in Rural Healthcare, the study indicated that 72% of suburban and urban physicians would consider a locum tenens assignment to “try out” a rural location.

“Understanding what motivates both physicians and administrators today—versus what might have been important to them pre-COVID—is worth exploring,” LocumTenens.com President Chris Franklin said. “Traditionally, temporary assignments have had the most appeal for those just starting out or those on the cusp of retirement. This survey suggests that it’s possible physicians might want to shake things up mid-career.”

 

The study indicated that 72% of suburban and urban physicians would consider a locum tenens assignment to “try out” a rural location.

Administrators also may want to re-think locum tenens as another recruitment strategy. “Rural facilities may view locum tenens as a more costly short-term solution when facing a vacancy, but it is all about perspective,” Franklin added. “While recruiting a permanent physician to a rural facility is the goal, there are different approaches to get there. For instance, if a vacancy is costing lost revenue, decreased access to care, and the risk of increased burnout on existing staff, facilities can leverage strategic recruiting to identify locum candidates who may be open to permanent placement in the long run.”

What Doctors Want

What would persuade an urban or suburban physician to move to a rural location?

“Not surprisingly, ‘higher compensation, bonuses and benefits’ ranks at the top of their five most important factors with 64% saying as much,” the report states. “Nearly half could be persuaded by the ability to work part-time or flexible hours (47%) and to achieve better work-life balance (46%). A strong organizational culture (33%) and an affordable cost of living (29%) round out the top five.”

Physicians already practicing in rural locations —25% of the physician sample—offered a slightly different perspective on why they chose rural medicine. The top-drawing factors were:

  1. Work-life balance (46%)
  2. Higher compensation (44%)
  3. Affordable cost of living (42%)
  4. More time with patients (28%)
  5. Schedule flexibility (27%)

A majority of rural hospital administrators (58%) said they thought the top attraction for doctors would be affordable cost of living, but this factor ranked fifth among urban and suburban doctors and third among rural physicians. Higher compensation scored fifth among administrators, vs first or second among doctors.

What will motivate physicians to stay? While physicians and administrators agree on the top factors influencing physician retention, physicians (55 percent) place greater value on higher compensation, bonuses, and benefits than administrators (37 percent) believe.

 “If a vacancy is costing lost revenue, decreased access to care, and the risk of increased burnout on existing staff, facilities can leverage strategic recruiting to identify locum candidates who may be open to permanent placement in the long run.”

Renewed Focus

In related news, in February the Health Resources and Services Administration of the US Department of Health and Human Services announced $19.2 million available from the American Rescue Plan Act “to support and expand community-based primary care residency programs.”

The grant application period closed on March 31 for health centers in underserved, rural and tribal communities to apply for funding to train primary care physicians and dentists.

On March 1, The Locum Tenens Guy (Dr. Vlad Dzhashi) highlighted “Why you should consider a locum opportunity in a rural, underserved or tribal community.” Sponsored by Arc Health, the post suggested 5 questions a physician or advanced practitioner should consider before accepting a rural or tribal locum tenens assignment:

  1. Would you like to live in a beautiful area with quick access to the outdoors?
  2. Do you want to be a source of energy to a clinic or an advocate for innovation and technological advancement?
  3. Are you interested in taking on special projects or jump-starting a new clinical initiative?
  4. Looking to expand your breadth of practice and depth of knowledge?
  5. Would you like to take a holistic approach to patient care and tackle the ‘upstream’ factors, or social dimensions of health and illness?