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Rural Healthcare Workforce

Maintaining the healthcare workforce is fundamental to providing healthcare quality and access in rural areas. Rural healthcare facilities must employ sufficient numbers of healthcare professionals who are capable of meeting the needs of the community in many ways. This includes having proper licensure, education and training, and cultural competency skills. Equally important, optimizing how health professionals are used and enhancing coordination among them helps ensure that patients are getting the best care possible.

Strategies can include:

  • Using interprofessional teams to provide coordinated and efficient care for patients and to extend the reach of each provider
  • Ensuring that all professionals are fully utilizing their skill sets and working at the top of their license; that is, practicing to the full extent of their training and allowed scope of practice.
  • Removing state and federal barriers to professional practice, where appropriate
  • Changing policy to allow alternative provider types, once evidence shows they can provide quality care
  • Removing barriers to the use of telehealth to provide access to distant healthcare providers

As the United States struggles with healthcare provider shortages, an uneven distribution of workers means that shortages are often more profound in rural areas. This maldistribution is a persistent problem affecting the nation's healthcare system.

This guide examines policy, economics, planning challenges, and issues related to rural health workforce, including:

  • Supply and demand
  • Distribution of the workforce
  • Characteristics of the rural healthcare workforce
  • Licensure, certification, and scope of practice issues
  • Programs and policies that can be used to improve the rural healthcare workforce

For additional information on rural healthcare workforce issues, please see these RHIhub topic guides:

Frequently Asked Questions

Why is there a healthcare workforce shortage in rural areas?

Shortages of rural healthcare providers are, in part, a symptom of a national healthcare labor shortage. As stated in the National Rural Health Association (NRHA) policy brief, Health Care Workforce Distribution and Shortage Issues in Rural America:

"The health care labor shortage in the United States has been widely documented and is expected to last for the foreseeable future."

Actual levels of shortages can be difficult to determine since estimates for specific professions vary depending on their source.

Rural communities are greatly affected by the maldistribution of healthcare professionals. According to a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation policy brief, Primary Care Workforce in the United States, maldistribution is a more significant issue impacting primary care access than shortages of providers. Areas with higher proportions of low-income and minority residents, such as rural areas, tend to suffer most from lower physician supply.

The following factors were identified in an interview with WWAMI Rural Health Research Center researchers and in the NRHA policy brief:

  • Education
    • The current healthcare education system tends to be urban-centric.
    • Access to training and education programs may be limited in rural areas for people who want to pursue careers in healthcare.
    • Providers trained in urban areas may not be prepared for the challenges of working in rural communities.
    • Urban areas sometimes draw people away from rural areas. Students in rural areas may have to travel or relocate to an urban location for health professions coursework, unless they can find degree programs offered online, or for clinical training. Some may remain there after completion of their studies.
    • There are fewer medical role models for potential students in rural communities.
    • Rural secondary school students may have fewer opportunities to receive the required math and science education courses required to pursue health careers.
  • Rural Demographics and Health Status
    • Rural populations often have higher rates of chronic illness, which creates more demand.
    • Rural areas tend to have higher proportions of elderly residents, who often require more care.
  • Rural Practice Characteristics
    • The current healthcare system is designed around face-to-face contact. Often, patients from rural communities lacking certain types of providers, particularly specialists, must travel longer distances or forego care.
    • Telehealth hasn't been adopted yet in some rural areas.
    • There are frequently fewer opportunities for career advancement.
    • Understaffing can create increased workloads, longer shifts, and less flexibility in scheduling.
  • Economics
    • Urban facilities and practices may offer better salaries, benefits, and working conditions.
    • Medical professions which require longer and more expensive training can be less affordable for rural students.
    • Small, rural communities may offer few job opportunities for spouses, which can make recruiting providers difficult.

What are the characteristics of the current rural healthcare workforce?

The fact sheet, Distribution of U.S. Health Care Providers Residing in Rural and Urban Areas, shows rural and urban supply and distribution for 32 healthcare professions. In rural areas there are more providers in occupations that require fewer years of education and training and fewer professionals in occupations that require higher levels of education.

The following chart shows rates of providers in rural areas as compared with urban areas for selected professions. For more information about the number of providers in each profession, as well as data on other health-related professions, see the fact sheet.

Per Capita Rates of Health Professionals, 2008-2010 – Selected Occupations
Occupation Providers per 10K, Rural Areas Providers per 10K, Urban Areas
Dentists 3.6 5.9
Pharmacists 6.4 8.8
Physician and Surgeons 13.1 31.2
Physician Assistants 2.3 3.4
Occupational Therapists 2.0 3.0
Physical Therapists 4.4 6.5
Registered Nurses 85.3 93.5
Licensed Practical and Licensed Vocational Nurses 31.8 20.6
EMTs and Paramedics 7.5 5.8
Nursing, Psychiatric, and Home Health Aides 93.4 72.3
Medical Assistants and Other Health Support 24.6 28.2
Medical / Health Services Managers 14.9 19.0

Source: Distribution of U.S. Health Care Providers Residing in Rural and Urban Areas, National Center for Health Workforce Analysis, 2014.

Rural Primary Care Physicians

According to Unequal Distribution of the U.S. Primary Care Workforce, as of 2013 there were approximately 68 primary care physicians per 100,000 residents in rural areas, in contrast to urban areas, where the ratio is an average of 84 primary care physicians per 100,000.

The primary care physician workforce is also experiencing problems related to aging. According to a report from the WWAMI Rural Health Research Center, The Aging of the Primary Care Physician Workforce: Are Rural Locations Vulnerable?, as of 2009, 27.5%  of primary care physicians in non-metropolitan areas were age 56 or older, compared with 25.5% in urban locations. In remote rural areas, the percentage is 28.9%.

Rural Physician Assistants (PAs)

The Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality's Primary Care Workforce Facts and Stats No. 3 tells us that as of 2010 15.6% of physician assistants (PAs) in all specialties practice in rural areas, with 24.9% of primary care PAs in rural practice.

Rural Nurse Practitioners (NPs)

According to Understanding Advanced Practice Registered Nurse Distribution in Urban and Rural Areas of the United States Using National Provider Identifier Data, as of 2012 there were 2.8 rural nurse practitioners (NPs) per 10,000 people, compared with 3.6 in urban areas. Male NPs were more likely to practice in rural areas:  8.9% of rural NPs are men compared with 6.8% in urban areas.

Rural Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetists (CRNAs)

According to Understanding Advanced Practice Registered Nurse Distribution in Urban and Rural Areas of the United States Using National Provider Identifier Data, as of 2010 there were 0.9 rural certified registered nurse anesthetists (CRNAs) per 10,000 people, compared with 1.2 in urban areas. Male CRNAs were more common in rural areas, with 60.9% of rural CRNAs being male, compared with 38.5% of urban CRNAs. Among rural CRNAs, 66.8% practiced in large rural areas, 25.8% in small rural areas, and 7.3% in isolated small rural areas.

Rural Registered Nurses (RNs)

The growing number of RNs nearing retirement age is also concerning. According to a report from the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA), The U.S. Nursing Workforce: Trends in Supply and Education (2013), rural RNs are:

  • Nearing retirement – Nearly one million RNs who are older than 50, about 1/3 of the current workforce, will reach retirement age in the next 10 to 15 years.
  • More likely to be white – 91.2% of RNs working in rural areas are white, compared with 72.4% of RNs in urban areas.
  • Less likely to have a bachelor's degree – 51.6% of RNs working in rural areas have a nursing diploma or an associate's degree as their highest level of education, compared with 35.3% of their urban counterparts.
  • Less likely to work for a hospital – 59.4% of RNs working in rural areas are employed in hospitals compared with 63.9% of urban RNs.
  • About 16% of the RN workforce – From 2008 to 2010, there were 2.8 million RNs in the workforce. Of that number, 445,000 RNs live in rural areas and represent 16% of the RN workforce.

Rural Licensed Practical Nurses (LPNs)

According to a report from HRSA, The U.S. Nursing Workforce: Trends in Supply and Education (2013), rural LPNs are:

  • More likely to be white – 83.2% of rural LPNs are white, compared with 56.9% of LPNs in urban areas.
  • Less likely to work for a hospital – 28.8% of LPNs working in rural areas are employed in hospitals, compared with 29.5% of urban LPNs.
  • More likely to work in a nursing care facility – 33.5% of rural LPNs work in nursing care facilities, compared with 29.8% of urban LPNs.
  • Average age – The average age of both rural LPNs and urban LPNs is 43.6.
  • About 24% of the LPN workforce – From 2008 to 2010, there were 690,000 LPNs in the nursing workforce. Of that number, 166,000 lived in rural areas and represented 24% of the LPN workforce. Thus, LPNs are disproportionately employed in rural areas.

Rural Behavioral Health Professionals

The WWAMI Rural Health Research Center's report Supply and Distribution of the Behavioral Health Workforce in Rural America notes that although over 15 million rural people currently have behavioral health issues, there are significantly fewer behavioral health providers in rural areas than in metropolitan centers.

The following chart shows rates of providers in rural areas as compared with urban areas for selected behavioral health professions:

Per Capita Rates of Behavioral Health Professionals, 2013-2015
Occupation Providers per 100K, Metropolitan Providers per 100K, Micropolitan Providers per 100K, Non-Core (Rural)
Psychiatrists 17.5 7.5 3.4
Psychologists 33.2 16.8 9.1
Social Workers 66.4 45.0 29.9
Psychiatric Nurse Practitioners 2.2 2.1 0.9
Counselors 118.1 100.2 67.1

What state-level policies and programs can help address the shortages in the rural healthcare workforce?

Funding options that states can use to address rural health workforce include:

Policy options that states can use to address rural health workforce shortages include:

  • Removing barriers to practice, such as allowing telehealth services to be provided across state lines
  • Allowing new or alternative provider types to practice in rural areas

What can schools do to meet rural healthcare workforce needs?

Options include:

  • Using admissions criteria that are likely to produce providers interested in rural practice, such as admitting more students from rural communities
  • Offering rural-centric curricula and training tracks
  • Developing distance education programs

What strategies can rural healthcare facilities use to help meet their workforce needs?

Rural healthcare facilities can employ numerous strategies to ease healthcare workforce shortages and improve care. For instance, they can employ technology, such as telehealth, to fill gaps in care caused by shortages. In addition, facilities can use interprofessional care teams to provide more efficient and high-quality care. Redesigning practice and processes to allow professionals to work at the top of their license and skill set can also lessen the effects of shortages.

Rural areas often experience difficulties in the recruitment and retention of primary care physicians and other health professionals. Thus, it is important to plan for future workforce needs. By anticipating retirements and departures of staff, administrators can take steps to recruit replacements in a timely manner, and avoid prolonged vacancies at their facilities. Increasing pay, benefits, and flexibility can also improve chances for success with recruitment and retention.

For ideas on recruiting and retaining healthcare professionals, please see RHIhub's Recruitment and Retention for Rural Health Facilities guide.

How do foreign medical graduates help fill rural physician workforce gaps?

Many rural communities recruit foreign medical graduates with J-1 Visa Waivers to fill physician vacancies. The Conrad State 30 Program allows each state's health department to request J-1 Visa Waivers for up to 30 foreign physicians per year. The physicians must agree to work in a federally designated Health Professional Shortage Area (HPSA) or Medically Underserved Area (MUA). Interested parties should contact the Primary Care Office in the state where they intend to work, for more information and exact requirements. See RHIhub's J-1 Visa Waiver topic guide for details.

In addition to the J-1 Visa Waiver, non-immigrant H-1B visas are sometimes used to fill employment gaps. These are employer-sponsored visas for “specialty occupations,” including medical doctors and physical therapists. H-1B visas are issued for three years and can be extended to six years.

Where can I find statistics on healthcare workforce for my state, including data on employment, projected growth, and key environmental factors?

HRSA's National Center for Health Workforce Analysis provides in-depth data on supply, demand, distribution, education, and use of health personnel. State level profiles are available which provide data for 35 types of health workers including physicians, nurses, and dentists.

The National Forum of State Nursing Workforce Centers provides a list of state nursing workforce center initiatives throughout the nation.

HRSA's Area Health Resources Files (AHRF) provides demographic and training information on more than 50 healthcare professions.

The U.S. Department of Labor's Occupational Employment Statistics: May 2015 State Occupational Employment and Wage Estimates provides state-level information on occupational employment within “Healthcare Practitioners and Technical Occupations” and “Healthcare Support Occupations.”

The Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC)'s 2015 State Physician Workforce Profiles provides data on physician supply, medical school enrollment, and graduate medical education throughout the United States.

The Kaiser Family Foundation's State Health Facts: Providers & Service Use Indicators provides data on physicians, RNs, PAs, NPs, dentists, and healthcare employment.

The Robert Graham Center's Workforce Projections provides primary care physician workforce projection reports for all states.

What are some federal policies and programs designed to improve the supply of rural health professionals?

Area Health Education Centers (AHEC) Program
AHECs promote interdisciplinary, community-based training initiatives intended to improve the diversity, distribution, supply, and quality of healthcare personnel, particularly in primary care. The emphasis is on delivery sites in rural and underserved areas. AHECs act as community liaisons with academic institutions and assist in arranging training opportunities for health professions students, as well as K-12 students.

Health Careers Opportunity Program (HCOP)
HCOP works to increase the number of people from economically disadvantaged backgrounds who enter the health professions field. HCOP programs provide student stipends and financial support to attend health professions schools, training for disadvantaged students, and counseling and mentoring services to help students complete their education and training. Students are exposed to community-based primary healthcare experiences.

National Health Service Corps (NHSC)
NHSC offers scholarships and loan repayment programs which can enable students to complete health professions training. Students must agree to complete a service commitment in a Health Professional Shortage Area. As reported in A 21st Century Health Care Workforce for the Nation, approximately 45% of NHSC providers serve in rural sites, and in 26 states rural NHSC providers outnumber urban.

NURSE Corps Scholarship Program
This program provides scholarships to nursing students who agree to serve 2 years at an eligible facility with a shortage of nurses. Scholarships consist of payments for tuition, fees, other reasonable costs, and a monthly stipend.

Where can states get technical assistance for health workforce planning, including how to address rural needs?

The Health Workforce Technical Assistance Center (HWTAC) offers technical assistance to states and organizations involved in health workforce planning. HWTAC activities can include:

  • Direct technical assistance
  • Educational webinars
  • Facilitating access to health workforce data

HWTAC is a partnership of the Center for Health Workforce Studies (CHWS) at the School of Public Health, University at Albany, State University of New York and the Cecil G. Sheps Center for Health Services Research at the University of North Carolina. It is funded by HRSA's National Center for Health Workforce Analysis.

Last Reviewed: 2/1/2017