Recruiting a rural health workforce is challenging


John Wheat, MD

An inadequate supply and uneven distribution of health care providers currently exists in rural communities. This is due to a number of factors, including a declining interest in primary care, an aging health-care workforce and an increased demand for services as the rural population grows and more people gain insurance coverage as a result of the Affordable Care Act.

John Wheat, MD, director of the College’s Rural Medical Scholars Program and a professor in the Department of Community and Rural Medicine, explained how the Rural Medical Scholars Program is working to overcome the challenges of recruiting a rural health care workforce during a presentation at the National Conference of State Legislatures Legislative Summit.

The half-day preconference session was held Aug. 12 in Atlanta and focused on state efforts to build a lasting healthcare system in rural America.

Legislators and legislative staff heard from leading experts, including retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, economist Beth Ann Bovino and political analyst David Gergen on topics such as: innovative strategies to connect rural people with providers, expanding the use of technology, and recruiting and retaining a rural health-care workforce.

The key to recruiting rural doctors, Wheat says, is to work for them the old-fashioned way. The Rural Medical Scholars Program admits students with a rural background and a desire to practice family medicine, includes rural training sites in the medical education curriculum, pairs students with dedicated rural family medicine preceptors, includes rural training in the family medicine residency curriculum and links financial support to rural service.

It is due to these efforts that the Rural Medical Scholars Program has placed 54.5 percent of its students in rural practice, compared to just 7.3 percent of University of Alabama School of Medicine students who do not participate in the program, Wheat says.

The College also functions as a regional campus of the University of Alabama School of Medicine, headquarted in Birmingham, for the clinical training of third and fourth year medical students.

Wheat states that it is the state legislature’s role to help public medical schools develop the will to create programs to admit and train students from underserved cultures and to fund these programs.

The National Conference of State Legislatures is a bipartisan organization that serves the legislators and staffs of the nation’s 50 states, its commonwealths and territories. NCSL provides research, technical assistance and opportunities for policymakers to exchange ideas about pressing state issues.