The Future of Rural Medicine in the Hands of Today’s Medical Students

Rural medicine is the clinical practice in remote and often underserved regions with small populations. Rural communities in the United States have a more difficult time accessing medical services than their urban counterparts.

Although more than 25 percent of the population of the United States lives in rural areas, rural populations are served by less than 10 percent of the country’s doctors. These findings are based on research conducted by the National Rural Health Association (NRHA).

NRHA has identified key factors that contribute to such health disparities. Rural communities are characterized by more diseases and tobacco use but lower household incomes. Further, community members in rural areas must travel farther to reach healthcare facilities. For example, some patients must travel 70 miles to reach the nearest hospital.

The physician shortage in rural areas results in poor health outcomes for these communities. Compared to urban communities, rural communities experience a higher mortality rate from treatable conditions such as cardiovascular diseases and accidents.

Rural medicine is a challenging choice for many doctors. The majority of medical school graduates opt for residencies and jobs in cities. Some new doctors fear a primitive life with meager resources and lower pay at rural clinics and hospitals.

However, similar factors make rural medicine a good choice. In rural areas, doctors enjoy a traffic-free and pollution-free environment with a short commute. Although patient demand can be higher in rural areas, doctors can set professional boundaries to prevent overwork. Unlike city-based physicians, rural medical practitioners experience less burnout as a result of less stress and more outdoor activities.

A lower cost of living also makes rural medical practice more feasible than urban practice. Surveys have shown that rural physicians make more money than metropolitan physicians, which results in a more comfortable lifestyle.

Medical schools in the United States are now offering special programs that encourage aspiring physicians to explore careers in rural medicine. More than 40 medical schools offer rural training tracks. For example, undergraduates at the University of Alabama can apply to the Rural Medical Scholars Program. Upon completing this one-year program, students gain early admission to medical school and a fast track to a master’s degree in Rural Community Health.

Some medical schools have incorporated rural medicine into their core curriculum. The Oregon Health & Science University (OHSU) School of Medicine has added rural rotations to its medical school curriculum to introduce students to this potential career path. OHSU also partnered with the University of California to launch COMPADRE (California Oregon Medical Partnership to Address Disparities in Rural Education and Health), which links physicians to rural residency programs.

The National Health Service Corps has established additional financial incentives for rural medical practitioners. Primary care physicians who work in underserved rural areas for two years can have thousands of dollars allocated toward their student loans.

Similar incentive programs, such as the Student to Service Program (SSP), are in place for medical students. SSP allows medical school seniors to earn $120,000 to pay their student loans if they agree to work in a rural area for three years.

In 2020, internist Joshua “Josh” Estep, MD, joined Samaritan Pacific Communities Hospital in Newport, Oregon.