July 5, 2022

The Shortage of Physicians in Rural Areas and How Physician Scheduling Software Can Help

One of the biggest challenges facing healthcare today is the shortage of physicians in rural areas. Over 45 million Americans, almost 15% of the population, live in rural areas with low populations that have sparse availability of qualified health professionals. These areas are typically in farming communities or in outlying rural neighborhoods, where the nearest major medical center may be at least an hour away.

Despite the challenges rural healthcare poses for physicians, it's nonetheless important for those patients to have adequate access to care. Fortunately, scheduling software can help you attract and retain the physicians you need to overcome this challenge.

The Impact On Health

The shortage of physicians in rural areas is not only an inconvenience to patients, but it also translates into poor health outcomes. Lack of primary care providers means patients do not get preventative health screenings, and often chronic disease goes unrecognized and untreated until a major illness occurs. At that point, the patient has no choice but to travel to a tertiary care center for treatment. Unfortunately, once they are discharged home, they face the same challenge: nowhere to go for a follow-up or continued care.

The Impact On The Cost Of Care

Patients residing in rural areas without physicians nearby often visit the emergency room for situations that could have easily been handled in the office. Sore throats, earaches and common minor illnesses can generate a large emergency room bill and a long wait time for treatment for the patient. High ER copays or lack of insurance coverage may keep the patient from seeking care entirely.

A study published by the American Journal of Managed Care showed that out of 11,546 ER visits, 57% were described as truly emergent, 30% of patients had no primary care doctor, and a mere 15% had a follow-up appointment within one week of the ER visit. Additionally, the Healthcare Financial Management Association estimates $8.3 billion is spent annually on ER care that could have been provided in a more suitable, cost-efficient site.

Reasons For The Physician Shortage In Rural Areas

There are 7,200 regions in the United States that are classified as Health Professional Shortage Areas. Of those areas, almost 60% are rural locations, revealing the drastic deficit and dire need for more coverage. Despite the need, physicians are reluctant to practice in rural areas.

Physicians state many reasons for their hesitancy to work in rural areas. Although doctors generally get paid more to work in rural areas than in densely populated locations with major medical centers, the long commute times to work and less access to services, complex procedures and research in rural communities makes for a less than ideal situation for docs.

Unfortunately, doctors who do actually practice in rural areas have a high burn-out rate. Despite many studies that cite a lower rate of burnout in physicians in rural areas, these doctors often find they are the only provider in the area, and their schedule is always full. They can't keep up, they can't get away for vacations and there is no work-life balance. Additionally, there is a lack of specialists to refer to, and physicians may feel uncomfortable managing complex patients that they could easily send to specialty services if they were available. The fear of a bad patient outcome and legal ramifications is a constant pressure.

How Can Physician Scheduling Software Help Close The Rural Healthcare Gap?

Many large healthcare organizations have used physician scheduling software to help bring better access to healthcare to rural Americans. These progressive organizations realize the value of implanting providers into rural settings. Along with being the right thing to do, it can result in financial benefits for the organization. The physician can be employed by the larger organization and enjoy all the perks while still being accessible to the patients who need them the most.

Additionally, splitting a provider's time between the main campus office and the rural office may translate into increased referrals to specialty services. After all, patients are willing to travel further distances for specialty care if they have a good relationship with a primary care provider who has recommended the referral.

This type of multi-location service and scheduling may seem intimidating at first - the potential for scheduling nightmares certainly exists in a situation like this. But this is where Intrigma comes in. Your organization can seamlessly create complex schedules for multiple providers across multiple locations using Intrigma's advanced scheduling software.

Efficient Scheduler for Physicians and Advanced Practitioners can optimize your time spent creating schedules and can help you build a strategy that focuses on the unique scheduling needs of your organization. Scheduling rules automatically avoid costly overstaffing and frustrating understaffing.

The software also is user-friendly and allows your providers to input their availability and access their own schedules via their computer or cell phone app. They can easily view their schedule, request time off and make shift swaps right from their fingertips. The ability to share schedules across providers, offices and departments creates transparency that minimizes scheduling conflicts.

Even locum tenens, or as-needed providers, can be plugged into existing schedules in the case of an unanticipated leave of absence. Intrigma's unique modular software allows for interim or emergency changes to the schedule to occur in minutes, instead of the hours it used to take in the past. This adaptability of the software has been instrumental in clinics where patient volumes saw a large increase due to the COVID-19 crisis. Instead of reacting to understaffing, the software analyzes patient census on the go and adapts staffing needs proactively.

In rural America, the shortage of physicians is a multi-faceted problem that has been developing for many reasons. One area where you can impact this situation is offering your providers a scheduling platform that they can live with. Allowing your staff to have more control in the creation and maintenance of their schedules is a major driver of provider satisfaction.

For more information on how Intrigma can help you recruit and retain qualified physician staff in rural areas, contact Intrigma today.