As a travel healthcare professional, your assignment opportunities could place you just about anywhere in the U.S., from big cities like New York and Chicago to coastal regions like Florida and California. However, you may have noticed a trend of travel nurse and nurse practitioner job openings in rural areas, which is due to a high demand for healthcare in these locales. As research from the National Conference of State Legislators pointed out, even though 20 percent of the U.S. population resides in rural areas, only 11 percent of physicians work there.
These locales often have unique and pressing needs that are not adequately addressed currently, which is why such a high demand for rural healthcare exists. Learn more about what's driving this trend and the roles of travel nursing and nurse practitioner jobs:
"Only 11% of doctors work in rural areas."
An overall healthcare provider shortage
The current healthcare provider shortage affects the entire country. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, a combination of an aging and growing population will elevate the demand for healthcare by 14 percent between 2010 and 2020. However, the HHS projects the number of primary care providers to only increase by 8 percent, further widening the gap between supply and demand.
On the demand side, aging baby boomers contribute to a shifting demographic. According to data from the U.S. Census Bureau, adults 65 and older will make up 20.3 percent of the population by 2030 and 20.9 percent in 2050, which explains the increase in care needs. Additionally, the implementation of the the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act require Americans to have insurance, creating even more patients.
For supply, the healthcare industry simply can't keep up. The National Planning & Reproductive Health Association explained that many providers such as nurses and those in physician or nurse practitioner jobs are baby boomers and also reaching retirement age. As older providers leave the workforce at a rapid rate, new patients enter waiting rooms just as quickly.
Finances fueling rural healthcare gaps
While the healthcare provider shortage impacts all of the U.S., rural areas are especially hard hit, partly due to economic factors. The U.S. Census Bureau defines rural as essentially the opposite of urban – areas that are not developed or do not use land for commercial, residential and urban purposes.
As a result, rural America may have fewer opportunities for jobs than cities, and the occupations that exist may not offer benefits that are as attractive as those in urban locales. According to the Rural Health Information Hub, this means that healthcare workers may avoid rural areas because more limited career opportunities for their spouses, or hospitals in more urban locations may offer more competitive pay, drawing in providers.
Shortage contributes to burnout
A travel nurse is likely no stranger to burnout. The nature of this profession – from caring for patients and supporting family members to working a demanding schedule – can make falling into job-related stress all too easy. A shortage of staff only contributes to the condition. Fewer nurses means those employed by rural medical facilities must "pick up the slack," so to speak. Nurses, in particular, wear many hats in the rural healthcare setting and often specialize in multiple areas so they are able to provide a range of coverage.
A CareerBuilder survey found that 65 percent of healthcare workers feel burned out, and 18 percent cited a lack of work-life balance as the reason for leaving their jobs. With a smaller staff, rural medical facilities may see more of their employees feeling they have too little personal time, prompting them to find employment elsewhere. However, the hospital can't feasibly restore that balance unless it can retain workers.
Circling back to the demand for care, this staff shortage means there are less providers to meet patient needs and thus burnout contributes to rural healthcare demand.
"Those in rural areas have higher chronic condition rates."
Unique healthcare needs of rural areas
On top of all the rural-specific factors fueling the provider shortage, these locales also have unique healthcare needs. According to the HHS, those in rural areas have higher chronic conditions, disability and mortality rates than those in urban spaces. Those in travel nursing understand just how important it is for patients to manage their chronic diseases, and that process may begin with lifestyle changes. Rural healthcare must focus on diagnosis and treatment as well as counseling and education. As such, these locales need more than just a greater number of providers. They also require healthcare professionals who can cater their skills to their patients' culture and have the ability and drive to implement new policies and programs in medical facilities.
Nurse practitioners: A potential solution
The need for high-quality rural healthcare is apparent, and as the factors that contribute to that demand become clear, so does the potential solution. In addition to supplementing a hospital or clinic's core nursing staff with travel nursing jobs to alleviate shortages, many industry experts also propose using those in nurse practitioner jobs to help close the primary care gap. According to the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, NPs are already more likely to work in rural locales than primary care doctors, and it takes less time to create new NPs (about six years) than it does to produce physicians (eight or more years). Additionally, NPs' holistic approach to care means they can effectively target the counseling and education portions of rural care.
As KFF noted, 22 states have 20 percent of their residents living in primary care Health Professional Shortage Areas, the official name for locales where the resident-to-physician ratio does not meet federal standards. Only eight of these states give full practice authority to NPs, meaning they can diagnose patients and prescribe medications, among other duties. If more states grant NPs this authority, rural areas would have access to more primary care providers, which would ultimately help meet the demand for healthcare.
While practicing in a rural area may present unique demands, the setting of a small community and the ability to get to know patients on an individual level are appealing to many healthcare professionals. Rural nurses, NPs and physicians provide healthcare to a wide variety of patients, are challenged daily and are an integral part of the community. Their importance to the health and well-being of their patients and families within the rural area in which they are practicing cannot be understated.