Nurse Practitioners Fill Primary Care Shortage in Rural Areas

Medical care availability in rural areas of the United States has been limited for many years as primary care physicians retire without another physician to fill their place. This gap in care has meant longer waiting periods for patients, who may end up skipping treatment altogether — leading to more advanced diseases and complications down the road. A nationwide shortage of primary care providers has left communities large and small looking for help, and nurse practitioners (NPs) are filling this gap with quality care. With an estimated 5,800 communities looking for more primary care providers, the need is expected to rise even further when the nation’s expanded health insurance plans take effect in the coming months.

Challenges for Nurse Practitioners in Rural Settings

Working with patients in rural areas brings a variety of challenges. Although there is a great demand for NPs outside urban areas, only about 18 percent of graduating NPs have chosen to tackle the challenge. Research shows that rural patients have higher rates of chronic disease, and government services like Medicare and Medicaid are more highly utilized compared to more populated areas. Access to specialty providers is more difficult as well — with the average patient driving between 20 and 60 miles to see a specialist.

With more than 50 million Americans living in a rural area, the bulk of which are found in the southern and western parts of the country, providers are bracing for an influx of new patients as the Affordable Care Act opens the door for millions of new non-elderly patients looking for primary care. This scenario is both positive and concerning for primary care providers. While it opens an expanse of opportunity and job security for nurse practitioners, the demand for medical care will remain higher than what most communities are prepared to handle, and could leave many patients battling the all too familiar problem of limited access to care. Additionally, many rural settings have outdated technology and digital communication systems, and some nurses who are accustomed to an urban lifestyle may struggle to adjust to a change in lifestyle.

Unique Benefits Rural Settings Have to Offer

Despite these challenges, there are many positive and satisfying attributes of rural health care.

  • Greater autonomy. Due to a lack of specialty providers and physicians in rural settings, mid-level providers are able to work more independently and provide more extensive care than they might offer in a large bustling practice with specialists right down the hall.
  • Higher job satisfaction. NPs who work in rural settings often report higher job satisfaction compared to other regions of the country. Because they are able to work more closely with their patients, they meet the traditional role of primary care as they take time to get to know the patient’s physical and personal needs. Spending more time with patients on a personal level means happier patients and more satisfied, less stressed providers.
  • Lower cost of living, better pay. The cost of living is more affordable than in urban areas, but NPs can also make more money in a rural setting, too. This higher salary often offsets the inconvenience of a 50-mile trip to the grocery store and other day-to-day realities of a remote lifestyle. Thanks to the National Health Services Corp (NHSC), NPs who choose to work in a rural setting can earn $60,000 in student loan reimbursement in exchange for just two years of work in the country.

The Future of Rural Primary Care

Standing shoulder to shoulder with physicians, nurse practitioners can offer quality care to patients and help offset the shortage of primary care providers in rural areas. Providing personalized, focused care to patients they know and don’t just treat means providers are happier and patients are better cared for. With increased access to care, patients will seek medical care earlier and treat chronic conditions sooner, creating a powerful ripple effect that can lead to lasting change.