In mid-August, the White House released its “Jobs and Economic Security for Rural America” report (www.whitehouse.gov), which underlines what most hospitalists already know: Rural healthcare is ailing. As the report points out, rural residents are more likely to be uninsured or be covered through public sources, while mortality rates have dropped more slowly in rural areas than in urban ones.
One troubling statistic in particular highlights the disparity in access: In 2008, the report notes, rural counties had 62 primary-care physicians (PCPs) per 100,000 residents, while urban areas counted an average of 79.5 PCPs (28% more). Although a number of initiatives have specifically sought to narrow that gap, a lesser-known dynamic between primary care and HM might be exacerbating the shortage.
Over the past few years, several reports and media accounts have suggested that medical students increasingly want practices that are either hospital-based or office-based, but not both. The presence of hospitalists, then, helps rural facilities create an attractive office-hospital divide and place PCPs in practices frequently owned by the hospital. Hospitalists, in other words, might be necessary prerequisites to help lure and retain PCPs.
To get someone to come to our area almost always requires some form of local connection. That makes retention paramount.
—Louis J. O’Boyle, DO, FACP, FHM, medical director, Advanced Inpatient Medicine, P.C., Honesdale, Pa.
Meanwhile, many physicians already in private rural practices are burning out. According to the 2009 Rural Hospitalist Study by the Illinois Critical Access Health Network, “primary-care physicians in rural areas are throwing in the towel of managing their hospitalized patients. More and more, these PCPs unilaterally are announcing to their patients and to the local hospitals they will neither continue to take responsibility for hospitalized patients nor continue to ‘take call.’ ”
Ome Nwanze, MD, one of two hospitalists at the 42-bed Greenville Regional Hospital in Greenville, Ill., says the biggest benefit to being a rural hospitalist is the ability to make a difference in the lives of everyone in the community. Along with patients, Dr. Nwanze includes other doctors as beneficiaries: “The primary-care physicians and specialists are very happy with the program and the difference it makes in their lives.”
If hospitalists are a natural solution, though, there’s a key problem: Rural communities are struggling to attract them as well. One sign of the difficulty is median salary. Similar to what surveys consistently show for other specialties, rural hospitalists outpace their urban counterparts in median annual salary, at roughly $206,000 versus $187,000, according to Becker’s Hospital Review (overall, hospitalists rank behind most other specialties in salary). The rural-urban divide can be attributed to that old real estate adage: location, location, location. Competition for hospitalist jobs in large cities is generally fierce, while rural communities often have to offer more incentives to attract and retain the doctors they need.
“The two biggest issues that I can see are recruitment and night coverage,” says Louis J. O’Boyle, DO, FACP, FHM, medical director of Advanced Inpatient Medicine (AIM), P.C., in Honesdale, Pa. He and AIM’s four other hospitalists work exclusively with the town’s 98-bed Wayne Memorial Hospital. “It is easier to recruit to a larger city, closer to more activities and residency programs,” Dr. O’Boyle says. “To get someone to come to our area almost always requires some form of local connection. That makes retention paramount.”
Night call can be a particular sticking point: Most rural hospitals aren’t busy enough to justify an FTE nocturnist, he says, putting the onus of night call on full-time hospitalists. Wayne Memorial Hospital is fortunate in that regard, as it averages only one or two admissions a day after 10 p.m., leaving the hospitalists “fresh enough to round the next day,” Dr. O’Boyle says. “However, this still makes rural programs less attractive compared to places that can boast a nocturnist team that eliminates night call.”