Attracting and retaining doctors to practice medicine in rural communities is an issue across the U.S., and particularly in Colorado. According to the Colorado Health Institute, there are nine regions across the state with significantly inadequate access to primary care providers (PCP) – including doctors, nurse practitioners and physician assistants. Five of these regions are considered hotspots of major concern.
Irene Frederick, M.D., is the academic director for the healthcare leadership master’s and certificate programs at the University of Denver, University College. She and her colleague, Perry Ferris, were recently awarded a grant from the COPIC Medical Foundation and through the grant, partnered with the Colorado Rural Health Center (CRHC) to research critical factors influencing physician retention in rural Colorado communities.
Researching Rural Colorado Community Doctor Retention
Why study this? Because rural Colorado has a critical physician shortage issue, and one key factor driving this shortage is physician retention.
A community can invest tens of thousands of dollars in recruiting, relocating and welcoming a new doctor, only to have him or her leave town in just a handful of years (the average stay is three to five years).
According to the report, “One community [we researched] has had no full-time, in-town physician for 10 years. Another has lost six primary care physicians in the past year. Since we visited another site in May, they have reported losing four family physicians, in a community with previous retention rates as high as 75%… For Colorado as a state, the five-year retention rate currently stands at only 38.5% (CRHC).”
Certainly small-town life isn’t for everyone. But most doctors go to rural communities with the desire to stay, raise their families and be long-term residents. However, that desire often wanes after a few years. Why? The key finding of Dr. Frederick’s research is that community–engaged physicians are long-term physicians. The trust and relationships built by engaged physicians leads to ongoing retention.
The questions we need to figure out and answer for are:
- How can we help communities engage their physicians in a meaningful and rewarding way?
- How can we help physicians know what to expect and engage in a rural community, especially if they are from out-of-town?
Opportunities for Increasing Rural Doctor Engagement
Dr. Frederick’s research outlines several potential opportunities to increase physician engagement – from courses in medical school to assistance from the Colorado Rural Health Center. The report is worth a read, not just because it sheds light on specific actions we can take today to help stave off physician turnover and shortages in rural Colorado, but because it also highlights what we already know: Doctors and health care workers are essential members of every Colorado community.
Every Coloradan needs a place to go for medical care, yet for many in Colorado, access to health care is difficult due to a lack of providers, especially in rural and urban under-served areas. We need to bolster programs that fight this problem and encourage more people to study primary care medicine while also supporting financial solutions that help physicians to stay in practice.
Note: The University of Colorado School of Medicine recently sponsored Rural Immersion Week, June 15 – 19, 2015, in Craig, Colorado. The event, now in its sixth year, allowed students to experience what it is like to live and work in a rural community by learning about the local culture, economy and health care.