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Idaho depends on attracting and retaining rural physicians

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Idaho depends on attracting and retaining rural physicians

Jun 11, 2024 | 6:30 am ET
By Gina Pannell
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Idaho depends on attracting and retaining rural physicians
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To combat physician shortages, Idaho’s Rural Physician Incentive Program (RPIP) offers incentives targeted to primary care physicians that want to work in rural communities, writes guest columnist Gina Pannell. (Getty Images)

Recruiting and retaining primary care physicians in rural Idaho has an array of challenges. Rising medical debt, lack of community and specialty resources for patients, burnout, professional isolation, quality childcare, and limited job opportunities for spouses are some of the contributing factors. As a result, physicians may seek positions in urban settings with more resources and support. But that leaves many rural communities with limited or no access to medical care.

Primary care providers play a critical role in preventing, diagnosing, and treating patients across their lifespan and can even help stop this trend. A resource that’s inaccessible — whether it’s because of a lack of transportation, lack of insurance, or lack of physicians — might as well not exist.

The consequences of inaccessible care can be severe. Since 2010, life expectancy of rural Americans has declined, and the gap between rural and urban mortality rates has nearly tripled. There are alarming trends in rural Idaho: people delaying medical care until they are extremely ill, closure of services such as labor and delivery, already sparse specialty services, and a growing aging population that requires increased level and frequency of care. All of these are compressing rural health care providers and the system.

To combat physician shortages, Idaho’s Rural Physician Incentive Program (RPIP) offers incentives targeted to primary care physicians that want to work in rural communities. The goal is to alleviate their financial burden by providing loan repayment for qualified medical debt making it easier for physicians to choose rural practices over higher-paying urban positions. The program lasts four years, which also allows physicians and their families to put down roots in the community giving them personal and professional reasons to stay. 

Many RPIP applicants express a genuine desire to serve in rural communities, often motivated by a personal connection to Idaho or a passion for working in underserved areas. Since its inception in 2013, RPIP has provided 114 physicians in 25 rural Idaho counties. Notably, 91% of physicians who completed RPIP stay in Idaho’s rural and underserved areas. RPIP has demonstrated its extensive reach and effectiveness, and the program’s success in fostering a committed rural health care workforce in Idaho.

While not the only solution, the need for programs like this is more critical than ever. Idaho faces an intense health care workforce shortage, ranking lowest in the nation for both physician and nurses per capita. Continued investment in health care workforce programs is essential to maintain and expand the impact.

Living in a rural setting is not a choice that should be coupled with an increased risk of heart failure, higher rates of obesity or hypertension, or inadequate health care. Idaho is predominantly rural, with steadfast communities that make our state the special place that it is. As someone born and raised in Emmett, I understand the deep-rooted care we have for our neighbors. Our rural communities deserve the same access to quality health care as those in urban areas.

It’s crucial that Idahoans recognize health care workforce shortages and the impact it has on the health of their families, neighbors and themselves. I thank Idaho’s lawmakers for continuing to support and fund creative and effective solutions like RPIP and even more recently the rural nursing loan repayment program targeted at another key member of the care team. Continued investment will help improve the health and well-being of Idahoans.