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Original Research

A national view of rural health workforce issues in the USA

Submitted: 25 May 2010
Revised: 20 July 2010
Published: 26 July 2010

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Author(s) : MacDowell M, Glasser M, Fitts M, Nielsen K, Hunsaker M.

Martin MacDowellMichael GlasserMichael FittsKimberly NielsenMatthew Hunsaker

Citation: MacDowell M, Glasser M, Fitts M, Nielsen K, Hunsaker M.  A national view of rural health workforce issues in the USA. Rural and Remote Health (Internet) 2010; 10: 1531. Available: (Accessed 18 October 2017)


Introduction:  Regional or state studies in the USA have documented shortages of rural physicians and other healthcare professionals that can impact on access to health services. The purpose of this study was to determine whether rural hospital chief executive officers (CEOs) in the USA report shortages of health professions and to obtain perceptions about factors influencing recruiting and retention.
Methods:  A nationwide US survey was conducted of 1031 rural hospital CEOs identified by regional/state Area Health Education Centers. A three-page survey was sent containing questions about whether or not physician shortages were present in the CEO’s community and asking about physician needs by specialty. The CEOs were also asked to assess whether other health professionals were needed in their town or within a 48 km (30 mile) radius. Analyses from 335 respondents (34.4%) representative of rural hospital CEOs in the USA are presented.
Results:  Primary care shortages based on survey responses were very similar to the pattern for all rural areas in the USA (49% vs 52%, respectively). The location of respondents according to ZIP code rurality status was similar to all rural areas in the USA (moderately rural, 29.3% vs 27.6%, respectively), and 69.1% were located in highly rural ZIP codes (vs 72.4% of highly rural ZIP codes for all USA). Physician shortages were reported by 75.4% of the rural CEOs, and 70.3% indicated shortages of two or more primary care specialties. The most frequently reported shortage was family medicine (FM, 58.3%) followed by general internal medicine (IM, 53.1%). Other reported shortages were: psychiatry (46.6%); general surgery (39.9%); neurology (36.4%); pediatrics (PEDS, 36.2%); cardiology (35%); and obstetrics-gynecology (34.4%). The three most commonly needed allied health professions were registered nurses (73.5%), physical therapists (61.2%) and pharmacists (51%). The percentage of CEOs reporting shortages of two or more primary care specialties (FM, IM or PEDS) was 70.3% nationally, with no statistically significant regional variation (p = .394), while higher for the New England through Virginia region (83.9%) than for all other regions. The CEOs reported the highest specialty care shortages for psychiatry (46.6%) followed by general surgery (39.9%), neurology (36.4%), cardiology (35.0%) and obstetrics-gynecology (34.4%). Major specialty shortages varied among regions and only for neurology and cardiology were regional differences statistically significant (p < .05). Marked variation between need for healthcare professionals were reported ranging from approximately 73% for registered nurses (RNs) to 16% for health educators. Reporting of need for RNs in rural areas was nearly 74% nationally and 35% reported a need for nurse practitioners. Differences for both RNs and nurse practitioners were not statistically significant among regions. Nationally, approximately 30% of CEOs reported a shortage of licensed practical nurses, which differed significantly among regions (p = .006). There was variation in physical therapist shortages among regions (p = .001), with 61.2% of CEOs reporting shortages nationally. Regional variation pattern was observed for pharmacists (p = .004) with approximately 50% of rural CEOs reporting a need for pharmacists nationally. The association between CEOs’ reported shortages of two or more primary care doctors and their indication of the need for other health professionals was statistically significant for nurse practitioners, physician assistants, pharmacists, and dentists. The recruitment and retention attributes deemed to be of greatest importance were: (1) healthcare is a major part of the local economy; (2) community is a good place for family; (3) doctors are well-respected and supported; and (4) people in the community are friendly and supportive of each other. These were remarkably similar across 6 US geographic regions.
Conclusions:  Similarities in shortages and attributes influencing recruitment across regions suggest that major policy and program interventions are needed to develop a rural health professions workforce that will enable the benefits of recent US health reform insurance coverage to be realized. Substantial and targeted programs to increase rural healthcare professionals are needed.

Key words:  health care, geographic variation, workforce, USA.

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