Healthcare Staffing Resources

5 strategies for recruiting physicians to rural communities

Physician who has been recruited to a rural community

Recruiting physicians for rural healthcare facilities has never been a walk in the park, as evidenced by the fact that 65% of rural areas in the U.S. experienced a physician shortage in 2023. While many physicians are looking for the excitement and amenities found in more urban locations, rural communities also have a lot to offer — from high quality of life to unique practice opportunities — that can be effective recruitment incentives. Here are five strategies to help your rural healthcare recruiting efforts be more successful.

Graphic listing 5 strategies for recruiting physicians to rural communities

1. Formalize your recruitment plan

“Rural providers have been dealing with workforce shortages for generations,” says Brock Slabach, chief operations officer for the National Rural Health Association. “What is new now is the level of acuity. What was a problem before has now become almost catastrophic in some cases.”

To tackle the problem systemically, Slabach suggests rural healthcare organizations clearly define their recruiting goals and determine what obstacles they need to overcome to reach them. Creating a formal recruiting plan is sometimes overlooked in the headlong rush to fill provider roles. “It’s important to understand up front what it’s going to take to make you successful,” Slabach says.

Steven Jacobs, president of the Mid-Atlantic Physician Recruiter Alliance and enterprise director for Physician & APP Recruitment at Jefferson Health, recommends creating protocols and standardized messaging to help candidates understand your organization’s culture, mission, and values.

“As part of our process, we send a lot of information to the candidate prior to the interview to help them understand the institution and what they’re getting themselves into,” Jacobs says. “It allows them to be part of something and have a feel for who we are as an organization.”

Quote about sending information to candidates for rural healthcare recruiting

Doing that upfront work, Jacobs believes, has allowed his recruiting efforts to turn into offers and contracts more quickly.

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2. Identify and promote your strengths

Rural communities can’t always offer the amenities of a large, urban center, but every community has its advantages — whether they’re recreational opportunities, a better work/life balance, or the chance to care for underserved populations.

To help showcase your community to candidates, Jacobs recommends working with the local Chamber of Commerce or tourism office. In addition to collecting materials from these organizations, sharing videos on YouTube and other local websites can provide candidates with a feel for what the area is like.

The key is to pinpoint your community’s assets, to “really look at the total scope of what you’re offering as a community,” Slabach says.

To help with this process, Slabach recommends using a scoring system developed by Dr. David Schmitz of the University of North Dakota. This Community APGAR scoring system considers factors such as geography, economics, scope of responsibility, job description, administrator support, resources to get the job done, hospital community, and institutional support. And the underlying metrics are scored by an outside evaluator.

“The final evaluation identifies your community strengths and weaknesses and provides steps you can take to overcome challenges,” Slabach says. “Truly understanding what makes your community and your healthcare organization unique can help you target your recruiting efforts to those who will be most attracted to the opportunity.”

Quote about understanding your community to recruit the best physicians

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3. Leverage loan forgiveness and government programs

Loan forgiveness and other similar programs can be an effective way to attract physicians and advanced practice providers to your community — especially early career providers with medical school debt.

For example, the National Health Service Corps will pay some or all of a provider’s student loan debt if he or she works in a healthcare professional shortage area.

“They’ve expanded the offerings of who’s eligible,” Slabach says. “Now advanced practice providers can get loan repayment program money, for example, and they’ve increased the dollars that are available to individuals who are seeking to locate in a rural area in exchange for loan repayment benefits.”

Another government program helps to expand graduate medical education in rural areas. “This allows more providers in training to spend some or all of their graduate medical education in a rural place, which is exciting because it provides individuals an opportunity to stay rural rather than go to an urban center to get the training they need.”

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Physician interviewing for a position in a rural community

4. Take advantage of virtual recruiting tools

Rural healthcare recruiting has typically involved a lot of travel for candidates, which can be time-consuming and costly for healthcare organizations. The widespread adoption of virtual interviewing has made this process easier for candidates and organizations alike, and allows recruiters to meet more candidates more quickly.

Slabach points out spending more time up front on virtual interviews can help weed out candidates before you go to the effort and expense of bringing them onsite. For executives, onsite visits can eat up “two days’ worth of non-stop entertaining and interviewing,” he says. “In-person interviews and onsite visits are extremely important to the organization, so it’s a vital process. It’s just that electronic convening can speed up some of the pre- and post-visit conversations.”

5. Leverage telehealth and temporary staffing solutions

While the best option is a full-time physician who lives in your community, there are several ways your organization can provide care while continuing to search for the right candidate.

Since the pandemic, telehealth usage has remained high, with an estimated 17% of all patient visits taking place virtually in 2023. In some specialties like psychiatry, over half (54%) of visits now take place virtually. Contracting with a specialty medical group or a staffing agency to provide telehealth services may be a convenient way to close staffing gaps without requiring physicians to be on-site, says Matt Brown, VP of telehealth at CHG Healthcare.

“Health systems are bringing in locum providers when staff physicians are stretched too thin to effectively support a virtual care program,” says Brown. “Virtual locum physicians are a way to relieve the pressure and quickly scale clinical capacity.”

Quote about using virtual locums to scale healthcare capacity and make rural healthcare recruiting easier

Similarly, bringing on locum tenens physicians to work in your facilities while you continue to recruit permanent staff can help maintain coverage, and in some cases, even contribute to your organization’s bottom line.

With a mounting physician shortage, recruiting physicians to rural healthcare isn’t going to get easier. But following these strategies can help you leverage your strengths and increase the attractiveness of your location.

Weatherby Healthcare has the locum tenens physicians and advanced practice providers to provide the coverage your healthcare facility needs. Give us a call at 954.343.3050 to learn more.

About the author

Heather Stewart

Heather Stewart is a journalist who frequently covers issues and trends in the healthcare industry.