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Primary Care

Important Topics in Rural Healthcare: An Introduction for PCPs

For providers raised and trained in urban or suburban settings, rural healthcare may seem almost foreign. In rural areas, primary care providers must treat an incredibly wide range of ailments, making generalists like family physicians essential. Yet, “65% of rural areas had a shortage of primary care physicians.” This is far from the only challenge rural communities must overcome when in need of care. Rural practitioners and patients also face inadequate training, delayed care and the impacts of poverty.

Although most primary care physicians won’t practice in rural areas, it is valuable to be aware of the unique challenges these communities face, as well as the innovative programs from universities and state governments with the potential to solve these problems to some degree.

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Emergency Medicine

The nationwide shortage of emergency medicine physicians is exacerbated in rural areas, where “the likelihood of seeing an Emergency Physician drops five fold, while the odds of seeing a Family Physician increases seven fold.” Family physicians and other primary care providers must fill in the gaps in emergency rooms and hospitals as well as follow ups, providing multiple types of care for individual patients.

Reproductive Healthcare

The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) paints a somber picture of reproductive healthcare in rural areas. Per the organization, only 6% of OB/GYNs practice in rural communities and, in some areas, “family physicians provide 100% of obstetric care.” Many factors are at play here, where women are more likely to conceive unintentionally than their urban counterparts while also being further from perinatal services. Preventative screening for breast and cervical cancer is also less likely for rural women.

Mental Health Services

Mental illness is no more prevalent in rural areas than in urban ones, unlike chronic diseases. However, access to mental healthcare is challenging in rural communities, and factors like the cost and stigma associated with care impact willingness to seek professional help. Services for substance use disorders face similar challenges.

Alternative Care Modalities

In rural areas where accessibility is a concern, alternative methods for providing care are potential solutions. Both telemedicine and mobile clinics could be used to provide regular, accessible rural healthcare.

Community Work

In communities where primary care providers represent the totality of healthcare options, physicians may be seen as community leaders. Some physicians may see the challenges of rural healthcare as an opportunity to treat patients with a long-term, holistic approach. Over time, patients and practitioners form close relationships. Not only are physicians caring for patients, but in small communities patients are likely to serve physicians in their professions as well.