How can we fix physician shortages in rural America?

Every year, thousands of medical school graduates wait for Match Day to find out their residencies. Match Day brings excitement and relief to those who are matched to a training program, but can be devastating for those who don’t. Medical school enrollment has been consistently growing, but funding for residency slots hasn’t caught up. For every medical school graduate looking for a resident position, there are have been between 0.8 and 0.85 slots available in recent years. This is a problem as states require at least one year of hospital residency as a licensing requirement. 

The nation is facing a significant shortage of physicians, particularly in rural areas. In fact, the shortage is estimated by the American Medical Association to fall between 37,800 and 124,000 physicians within the next 12 years. From primary care to psychiatry, obstetrics, neurology, and oncology, numerous specialties are facing a physician shortage. And with more and more physicians retiring and quitting from burnout, the problem isn’t getting better.

Rural areas face the brunt of this shortage as urban areas have higher densities of both primary care physicians and specialists. Patients in rural areas tend to be older, poorer, and sicker, especially with chronic conditions. With fewer doctors around, they have to travel further for both preventative and emergency care, putting them at greater risk for poor health outcomes and mortality.   

The mismatch between medical school enrollment, residency slots, and the need for physicians in the workforce has resulted in a lose-lose situation where perfectly competent physicians face barriers to working while simultaneously, entire regions of the country are without sufficient access to physicians.

What can we do about this mismatch and resulting dilemma?

Increase residency opportunities through both federal and state funding

Most residency slots are funded by the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS), meaning that they need action by the federal government for expansion. This also means that no significant action had been taken for over 20 years (Congress had actually capped the number of residents), until the COVID-19 relief bill was passed. The COVID-19 relief bill opened the door for 1,000 new residency slots, 10% of which must be in rural areas. Another similar bill has been introduced in Congress that would allocate funding for an additional 2,000 residency slots every year for 7 years starting in 2025.

Another option is to increase residency slot funding on the state level. The majority of doctors stay in the states where they completed their residency. Both California and Texas–where the shortage is predicted to be the worst–approved multimillion dollar expansions in funding, resulting in increase retention of physicians in underserved, local areas. 

The Assistant Physician model

Missouri took a different approach, passing a law that launched a new category of licensure called assistant physicians (not to be confused with physician assistants). This allows medical school graduates who didn’t match to a residency on their first try to practice primary care in rural and underserved areas under the supervision of a licensed physician. While the program is relatively new, there is evidence it’s working at alleviating the rural physician shortage. As of early 2023, there were nearly 300 assistant physicians licensed in the state, about 3% the number of primary care doctors. Six other states now have similar laws allowing for unmatched medical school graduates to practice while they continue trying to match with a residency. Washington specifically designed their program for international medical graduates

The physician shortage in rural areas is a complex problem with numerous potential solutions. We need to increase the number of licensed medical professionals–including nurse practitioners, physician assistants, and international medical graduates–as well as retaining them. We need to reduce burnout so clinicians don’t hate their jobs and retire early. We need to incentivize trainees to serve in medical deserts where they’re needed the most. 

The realignment of community needs and the physician workforce pipeline will be tricky, but not impossible. While telehealth may help in the coming years, we should still be considering the most efficient way to build up our healthcare practitioner workforce.