Feds Pay to Entice Primary Care Docs to Rural Areas, but Will They Stay?

August 12, 2010

The Obama administration is offering financial incentives under the new healthcare law to attract young primary care doctors to underserved areas. The question is: Will the doctors who accept the incentives be content in these areas to want to stay?

This article was originally published on HCPLive.com.

The Obama administration is offering financial incentives under the new healthcare law “to bring thousands of young primary care doctors to underserved areas…and keep them there.” The question is: Will the doctors who accept the incentives be comfortable enough in these underserved, typically rural, areas to want to stay?

According to a Washington Post article, the administration “recently invested more than $1 billion from the stimulus and the health-care law into the National Health Services Corps to beef-up doctor recruitment.” These funds were dispersed to about 5,000 recent medical school graduates, who “accepted [the] federal grants to pay off tuition and school loans averaging $150,000 per student.” The stipulation is that the recipients must agree to serve for three to five years in underserved areas.

The NHSC expects about 2,800 medical students to participate in the program next year. However successful the program is in recruiting primary care physicians to serve, it still only amounts to a drop in the proverbial bucket when it comes to ensuring access to these underserved patient populations. The NHSC recently released a report that claimed that “27,000 primary care physicians are needed to meet the needs of about 45 million Americans in medically underserved areas.”

One potential challenge for the program is physician retention. The Post article includes interviews with several young physicians who talk about the unexpected challenges and inconveniences of practicing medicine in rural America, including professional isolation, and slow or spotty Internet service and/or wireless access.

The chronic shortage of physicians who choose to practice rural medicine and high turnover rate among doctors who do fill these slots can have a profound impact on the health of local residents. High turnover creates a “void” in services and leaves patients reluctant to bond with new physicians for fear that they, too, will soon pull up stakes. The Post article says that “in areas where doctors are scarce, the impact can be devastating. Residents delay examinations until conditions are chronic and more costly to treat.”