Physicians May Not Be as Opposed to Rural Practice as Once Believed; New Survey Reveals 90% Would Consider It

A new survey from Jackson Physician Search, a permanent physician recruitment firm, and, a temporary physician staffing firm, provides fresh insights to help rural healthcare organizations make progress in resolving their chronic physician recruitment and staffing challenges. Takeaways from the study titled Rural Physician Recruitment and Staffing Survey Results suggest the market could be shifting, as 90 percent of surveyed physicians indicate they have some level of openness to considering rural practice.

“Our findings provide a recruitment roadmap for rural healthcare,” said Tony Stajduhar, president of Jackson Physician Search. “Considering the reality that 20 percent of the population lives in rural areas — yet only about 10 percent of physicians practice there — combined with COVID-prompted early retirements and job changes, these new insights suggest that rural healthcare organizations can more effectively market open positions by better understanding what physicians want and need.”

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The recent survey of 1,311 physicians and 169 administrators, as well as 158 advanced practice providers, explored the dynamics of what it’s like to work in rural, suburban and urban healthcare environments, and how physicians are thinking about rural practice opportunities. Interestingly, physicians sometimes vary in their viewpoints based on their current practice location and stage of life.

In addition, administrators were asked about the likelihood that they might consider locum tenens as part of their staffing strategies to meet the immediate needs of their communities — whether that be for a temporary gap in coverage or to mitigate the negative impact on patients and organizational revenue during a lengthy vacancy.

The new report, Rural Physician Recruitment and Staffing Survey Results, details:

  • Physicians’ and advanced practice providers’ sentiments on what they want in a permanent rural opportunity and how these compare to what administrators think
  • Physicians’ and administrators’ views on rural locum tenens, as well as recommendations for its strategic use
  • Insights into rural physician retention, including what physicians value most when considering whether to stay
  • A snapshot of how COVID-19 is impacting physician retirements and rural recruitment

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Physicians are clear about what they want; administrators can take heed

The study found that physicians who are currently practicing in urban and suburban locations are looking for higher compensation, bonuses and benefits (64 percent), more flexible hours (47 percent) and improved work-life balance (46 percent), and many are open to finding those characteristics in a rural opportunity. Administrators, on the other hand, ranked compensation as the fifth most important factor, indicating there’s a disconnect that must be overcome. Noted Stajduhar, “This suggests that if physicians are well paid and assured of better work-life balance, a rural location may be less of a negative factor than once believed.”

What can be learned about how cultural attributes affect the rural experience during recruitment and for retention purposes?

“We have long advocated that physician retention begins with recruitment,” explained Stajduhar. “And this survey confirms that finding the right cultural ‘fit’ is the first step. Understanding what physicians value most in a facility’s culture and the factors that will motivate them to stay can go a long way towards making a good match and keeping them long term.”

Administrators underestimate the importance of providing physician autonomy. Just 24 percent of those surveyed feel it’s an attribute of culture that most appeals to physicians. However, physicians (40 percent), regardless of practice location, rank it as the most important aspect of culture. And 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.

Temporary staffing might make more economic sense than administrators think

The survey asked physicians who don’t already work in a rural setting if they might consider a locum tenens assignment to “try out” a rural location — and 72 percent of physicians responded favorably. The study results also revealed that nearly 1 in 10 of physicians who moved to a rural practice cited COVID-19 as the reason.

“Understanding what motivates both physicians and administrators today — versus what might have been important to them pre-COVID — is worth exploring,” said Chris Franklin, president of “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.”

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,” added Franklin. “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 temporary locums candidates who, in many cases, may be open to permanent placement in the long run.”

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