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Education and Training of the Rural Healthcare Workforce

Maintaining healthy rural communities depends on proper preparation of the rural health workforce. This involves ensuring that physicians, nurses, dentists, and other healthcare professionals are well-educated, well-trained, and have had experiences that expose them to and prepare them for rural practice.

Programs and activities specific to rural health workforce training may include:

Grow-Your-Own and Career Ladder Programs

  • Programs like scrubs camps that introduce rural students to health careers
  • Healthcare facility programs that help employees advance their education and careers

Education & Training Provided in Rural Areas

  • Nursing and allied health education at rural community colleges
  • Rural rotations or curricula, including rural interprofessional education experiences
  • Rural training track (RTT) residency programs specifically designed to train physicians for rural practice
  • Continuing and professional educational opportunities for rural health professionals

Technology to Educate the Rural Health Workforce

  • Simulation
  • Distance learning
  • Telehealth applications for learning

Investing in rural healthcare education can facilitate recruitment and retention efforts in rural areas, reducing workforce shortages and increasing diversity.

Frequently Asked Questions:

How can grow-your-own programs improve the future health workforce available in rural areas?

Grow-your-own programs help to address the shortage of healthcare workers in rural areas. They focus on encouraging individuals to consider choosing healthcare careers, cultivating their interest, and helping them develop skills that they can use professionally in their home communities. This approach recognizes and builds on the idea that health professionals are more likely to consider serving in the community in which they were raised. It does not provide healthcare workers who will enter the labor force immediately. Instead, it is a long-term strategy that moves people into the health workforce pipeline and enables rural communities to more effectively address their future healthcare workforce needs.

Programs such as scrubs camps provide an effective way for community organizations to work together, partner with healthcare facilities and schools, and expose students to careers in rural healthcare. Scrubs camps are for students of elementary through high school age and can last from a single day to a week. Students have the opportunity to meet and interact with a variety of healthcare professionals and engage in healthcare-related activities. These camps increase interest, awareness, and understanding of health careers available in rural areas.

Other grow-your-own activities that healthcare facilities or schools might sponsor include:

  • Hosting healthcare career fairs
  • Inviting healthcare workers to schools, to speak about their careers
  • Providing opportunities for students to shadow healthcare professionals

Career ladder programs are sponsored by healthcare facilities to help employees advance their education. While producing health professionals with higher-level skills, these programs also tend to increase employee satisfaction, which leads to higher retention rates. Opportunities may include:

  • Providing one-on-one career counseling and mentorship
  • Offering tuition reimbursement programs
  • Providing continuing education

Where can I find information on Medical School Rural Tracks and Rural Training Track Residency Programs?

Medical School Rural Track (RT) Programs

Many medical schools offer rural tracks that provide rural training experiences to students who are interested in rural practice. Rural tracks give students exposure to rural practice, allowing them to see the broad scope of practice rural physicians enjoy. This can fuel students’ interest in residency and a career in a rural area. For other students, it helps them realize that rural practice is not for them, which is important to determine prior to committing to rural practice.

A 2013 study of the 35 existing and planned medical school rural tracks showed that the number of students participating in a given program ranges from 4-60, typically 5-10% of a medical school class. Medical School Rural Tracks in the US, a policy brief on the study findings, also identified the following key points about rural tracks:

  • Selection criteria for the programs often include rural background, a commitment to serve rural areas, and a desire to enter a primary care discipline.
  • Many programs offer scholarships for rural track participants
  • Most rural tracks rely on funding from sources other than their medical school
  • The annual cost of running a rural track for 15-25 students is $350,000-$600,000
  • Approximately 44% of rural track graduates reported entering rural practice

Rural Training Track (RTT) Residency Programs

RTTs provide graduate medical education to prepare resident physicians for careers in rural family medicine. Shortages in the rural primary care workforce are a serious concern. RTT programs address these shortages.

Family Medicine Rural Training Track Residencies: 2008-2015 Graduate Outcomes reports that over 35% of graduates of RTT residency programs were practicing in rural areas during the 7 years after graduation, which is about twice the percentage of former family medicine residents overall.

The most popular model of RTTs is the “1-2” RTT. In this model, the first year of residency occurs in an urban-based program setting while the 2nd and 3rd years are spent in rural areas.

Other types of rural residency training programs are:

  • Rurally located residency programs
  • Urban-located programs with a rurally located continuity clinical site
  • Rurally focused urban programs

Currently, the Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education (ACGME) is the only body that separately accredits RTT programs under existing specialty standards.

For more information about Rural Training Tracks, visit the RTT Collaborative.

Do rural health rotations and curricula increase the likelihood that students will practice in rural areas?

Comprehensive Medical School Rural Programs Produce Rural Family Physicians, an article in the American Family Physician, examined three comprehensive medical school rural tracks, which produced six times the national average for graduates practicing in rural areas. The Impact of Rural Training Experiences on Medical Students: A Critical Review, published in Academic Medicine, reports on a review study of 72 studies related to rural training experiences. The authors found that:

“…most studies revealed that student experiences in a rural setting predicted future employment. In general, medical students completing rural rotations were three times more likely to practice in a rural community compared with the national average…Students in self-report studies felt that their skills significantly increased in areas such as chronic disease management and ability to handle acute problems, with the largest gain in understanding health systems and the community during their rotation in a rural primary care clinic.”

A 2011 Academic Emergency Medicine article, Availability and Potential Effect of Rural Rotations in Emergency Medicine Residency Programs, describes the types of rural rotations in emergency medicine residency programs and the correlation with rural practice after graduation. Emergency medicine residency graduates were more likely to select a rural job if rural rotations were required.

The WWAMI Rural Health Research Center publication Graduates of Rural-centric Family Medicine Residencies: Determinants of Rural and Urban Practice, looked at the reasons physicians trained in a “1-2” RTT program selected rural or urban practices. Factors identified for choosing rural practice include positive perceptions of their rural residency training experiences, community amenities, rural experience prior to medical school, being prepared for rural living, a partner/spouse from a rural area, or obligations or incentives to work in underserved communities.

Rural rotations are also available for other health professions students, such as pharmacy, physician assistants, dentistry, and advanced practice nursing. Examples of successful rural rotations that prepare students for rural practice include:

What are Area Health Education Centers (AHECs)? How do they help to prepare the rural healthcare workforce?

Area Health Education Centers focus on strengthening the supply and distribution of primary care providers in rural and underserved areas. AHECs act as community liaisons with academic institutions and assist in arranging training opportunities for health professions students.

AHECs help prepare students for rural healthcare through activities such as:

  • Recruiting and training minority students and those from disadvantaged backgrounds
  • Placing students in community-based clinical practices settings, focusing on primary care
  • Improving quality of care by promoting interprofessional education and collaboration
  • Facilitating programs and continuing education resources for health professionals in rural and underserved areas
  • Conducting pipeline activities to expose high school students to health careers

The National Area Health Education Center Organization provides a state directory of all AHECs. According to its website, there are currently 56 AHEC programs with more than 235 centers operating throughout the United States, working collaboratively with approximately 600 nursing and allied health schools and 120 medical schools.

At the federal level, AHECs are funded through the HRSA Bureau of Health Workforce. AHECs also use other funding streams to match their federal funds and operate additional programs. AHECs tailor their programs and activities to the needs of their region. Successful programs include:

Rural Experiences for Health Professions Students (REHPS), based in the Yankton Rural Area Health Education Center, raises awareness for healthcare needs in underserved areas of South Dakota through placement of health professions students in rural or frontier areas of the state.

The Naloxone Education Empowerment Distribution Program, organized by the San Luis Valley Area Health Education Center, works to train and certify healthcare workers and community members to administer naloxone. This was a one-year program that ended in September 2016.

Project PROMISE (Providing Rural Opportunities in Medicine through Inspiring Service and Education), is an educational and experiential pipeline program based in Spruce Pine, North Carolina. This program provides high school seniors with medical academic training, mentor relationships, and experience in rural North Carolina medical facilities.

The Targeted Rural Underserved Track (TRUST) program places students in rural medical settings in communities throughout Washington, Wyoming, Alaska, Montana, and Idaho, and enables them to return on a regular basis to learn and work in the same community.

The Forward NM Pathways to Health Careers program has initiated grow-your-own activities to support comprehensive workforce pipeline programs for middle and high school students, undergraduates, medical students, graduate students, and resident physicians.

The MU-AHEC (University of Missouri Area Health Education Center) Summer Community Program provides opportunities for second-year medical students to work under the direction of rural community-based physicians for 4 to 8 weeks.

Why is interprofessional education important for future rural healthcare professionals?

According to the World Health Organization,

“Interprofessional Education occurs when students from two or more professions learn about, from and with each other to enable effective collaboration and improve health outcomes.”

IPE encourages communication and expands understanding through work with other disciplines. The ultimate goal of IPE is to prepare students to practice team-based care after graduation.

Rural interprofessional education students have completed a portion of their health education program and often complete a two-week rotation in a rural underserved area to learn how different professions work together. Students interact with healthcare professionals, learning about building relationships and teamwork.

For further information on the impact of rural interprofessional education programs, please see:

How is online training being used to prepare the rural healthcare workforce?

Rural healthcare workers are often reluctant to leave their homes or place of employment for training and education due to travel challenges, coverage in staffing, and costs. Online training programs can provide accessible training for current and future healthcare professionals. These programs may provide degree programs, continuing education classes, training in cultural competency skills, and leadership training.

The Rural Monitor article, Education at a Distance: Virtual Classrooms Bring Healthcare Classes to Rural Areas, highlights distance and hybrid programs for occupational therapy, physician assistant programs, and nursing. These allow rural students to earn their degrees while still living and working in their home communities.

RHIhub's Rural Health Models and Innovations features the following successful online training programs:

Rural Nurse Initiative RNI Program (RN-BSN)
Located at the University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Nursing and Health Studies, this program helps rural nurses continue their education.

ACA Online Training Module for Rural Healthcare Providers
Provides an online training module to help healthcare providers in rural northern New England learn about Health Insurance Marketplace outreach and enrollment.

EMS Live @ Nite
Provides monthly training to rural EMS providers throughout the northwestern United States.

Project ECHO® (Extension for Community Healthcare Outcomes)
Developed to provide increased capacity for chronic disease management. The model uses videoconferencing to connect primary care providers with specialists who can assist with patient treatment and increase the knowledge base of participants.

How is simulation technology used to educate rural healthcare providers?

Various forms of simulation have been a part of healthcare education for many years, including volunteers role-playing patients, practice suture pads, and anatomical replicas. However, improvements in technology have advanced the capabilities of the simulation tools available to students.

Simulation Technologies in Higher Education: Uses, Trends, and Implications, a 2010 publication from EDUCAUSE, reports that simulation technology is most often used to practice low-frequency events that require high acuity, such as emergency procedures, and irreversible procedures, such as surgery. Since rural healthcare professionals typically see lower frequencies of high acuity events, simulation is especially useful in rural areas.

Two methods of simulation technology are discussed in Medical Simulation Education: Results of an AAMC Survey, a 2011 study by the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC). These are:

  • Mannequin Simulation: The AAMC study indicates that the most common type of simulation equipment is the full-scale computerized mannequin, described as a life-sized robot that mimics various functions of the human body, including respiration, cardiac rhythms, and pulsation.
  • Screen-based Virtual Reality: The AAMC study defines screen-based simulation as a program, exclusively computer-based, that allows learners to interview, examine, diagnose, and treat patients in realistic clinical scenarios. Examples include virtual patients, virtual environments, or physiologic simulations.

Examples of simulation technology used in rural areas include:

Penn State Learning Center
Training center for rural healthcare professionals

University of Missouri Health System School of Medicine: Mobile Sim
Provides interactive training in rural areas of Missouri through the Mobile Sim clinical simulation service

California Institute for Nursing & Health Care: Rural North Area Simulation Collaborative
Provides training from Sacramento to the Oregon border and from the Sierra Nevada to the Pacific Ocean

Rural Northern California Clinical Simulation Center
Includes numerous simulators, mock patient rooms, and state-of-the-art education tools for rural healthcare professionals

Patient Simulators Sharpen Skills of Rural Practitioners
Highlights South Dakota Simulation in Motion, Society for Simulation in Healthcare, Shelden Clinical Simulation Center, and Peter M. Winter Institute for Simulation, Education, and Research

What role can community colleges play in healthcare workforce training in rural areas?

Community colleges play an important role in educating those entering the healthcare workforce field, particularly people in nursing and allied health fields. These schools offer degrees and certifications in a variety of healthcare fields, including programs for:

  • Medical assistants
  • Paramedics
  • Respiratory therapists
  • Health information/medical records technicians
  • Dental assistants and hygienists
  • Surgical technologists
  • Physical therapist assistants

The policy brief A Data-Driven Examination of the Impact of Associate and Bachelor's Degree Programs on the Nation's Nursing Workforce, reports that as of 2008 approximately 75% of registered nurses practicing in rural areas had received their initial training through associate's degree in nursing (ADN) or diploma programs.

According to the American Association of Community Colleges, community colleges offer affordable access to higher education and completion of credentials. These colleges are positioned to train a geographically and culturally diverse workforce, and are the primary access point to higher education for underrepresented populations, first-generation college students, and currently employed healthcare professionals who are seeking further education.

Community colleges strive to provide educational opportunities close to rural communities. In the 2012 policy brief The Contributions of Community Colleges to the Education of Allied Health Professionals in Rural Areas of the United States, the WWAMI Rural Health Research Center studied the geographic relationships between community college programs for 18 allied health occupations, rural populations, and healthcare facilities that hire these professionals. The researchers found that:

  • In 2007-2008, 62% of people who completed a postsecondary program for the 18 allied health occupations did so at a community college.
  • 99% of urban residents lived within a one-hour drive to a community college offering allied health coursework, while 35% of the rural populations were within 30 minutes of a community college with similar offerings.
  • Access varied by region, with 58% of the rural population in the West living within a 60-minute drive compared with 90% in the Northeast.
  • Some programs had a higher percentage of rural students within a 60-minute drive, such as Medical/Clinical Assistants, Emergency Medical Technicians/Paramedics, and Surgical Technologists.

As reported in Community Colleges Crucial for Rural Development, rural community colleges help promote economic development and sustainability within their region, by meeting health professions workforce needs.

Rural community colleges can also partner with distant universities to offer more advanced degrees. For instance, New Mexico Junior College (NMJC) offers a Bachelor of Science degree in Nursing in partnership with the University of New Mexico, allowing students to complete classes locally. This partnership was created by the New Mexico Nursing Education Consortium (NMNEC), a collaboration between community colleges and universities which has produced a nursing curriculum used by all state-supported programs. Credits transfer easily between colleges and universities and students can complete up to 100 of the credits at the lower community college rate. NMJC is the first rural New Mexico community college to implement the program.

Rural Health Information Technology Workforce Curriculum Resources offers a complete inventory of curriculum resources, including course descriptions and training materials, developed by the Federal Office of Rural Health Policy's Rural Health IT Workforce Program grantees. Many of the training programs were created in rural community college settings. Community colleges and vocational or technical institutions that are developing similar programs are encouraged to use and build on these curriculum resources.

What admissions criteria can health professions programs consider to identify students likely to go on to practice in a rural community?

The shortage of health professionals in rural America can at least partially be addressed through educational programs. To produce students who are likely to practice in rural areas, schools must consider factors that are good indicators of future rural practice. This might be at odds with the traditional tendency of educational programs to recruit the most elite students.

For instance, medical school admissions committees in the United States have historically given preference to the “best of the best” applicants – those with the highest grades and MCAT scores as well as a well-rounded background in extracurricular activities, and volunteer or work experience. Applicants meeting these criteria are likely to be from a background of high socioeconomic status. In 2016, 64.7% of students entering medical school in the United States had parental incomes of over $100,000, according to the AAMC Matriculating Student Questionnaire. Growing up in urban areas also gives potential applicants more opportunities to pursue activities that will make them seem “well-rounded” to admissions committee members.

Using the traditional admissions criteria produces excellent physicians. However, if those doctors are not inclined to practice in rural communities, maldistribution occurs which ultimately results in poorer healthcare access for rural Americans.

In its 2007 Eighteenth Report: New Paradigms for Physician Training for Improving Access to Health Care, the Council on Graduate Medical Education (COGME), urged medical schools to admit more students from underserved areas, stating: 

“There must be an incentive for medical schools to admit minority students as well as students from underserved urban and rural areas. This would increase the likelihood that graduates return home to practice medicine. The admissions practices of many medical schools raise the thorny question of whether admissions committees cause and perpetuate the physician maldistribution problem.”

The COGME report goes on to suggest that states should provide incentives for medical schools to develop special admissions tracks for rural students, as well as those from other backgrounds that might qualify them as disadvantaged.

The Journal of Rural Health article High School Census Tract Information Predicts Practice in Rural and Minority Communities supports the idea that rural origin is a strong predictor of future rural practice. Admitting students from rural backgrounds who are slightly less qualified by traditional measures still usually results in producing highly-skilled physicians. The article, A Comprehensive Medical Education Program Response to Rural Primary Care Needs, looked at the Rural Medical Education Program (RMED) at the University of Illinois and found that while students admitted to the program had slightly lower MCAT scores, their United States Medical Licensing Examination (USMLE) scores at the end of their training were equal to those of students admitted under traditional criteria.

Intended specialty area is another indicator that can be used to predict future rural practice. Patching the Rural Workforce Pipeline – Why Don't We Do More? indicates that applicants stating an intention to enter a family medicine specialty are more likely to enter rural practice, particularly when combined with rural background or interest.

Some medical schools with a rural mission or a rural track do use criteria related to rural interest. Medical School Rural Tracks in the US identifies characteristics sought for rural track applicants:

  • Rural interest or background (39 programs cited)
  • Rural commitment (23 programs)
  • Community involvement (20 programs)
  • Primary care commitment (18 programs)
  • Character (18 programs)
  • Resident of state/area (15 programs)

What cultural competency skills do rural healthcare providers need and what types of training are available?

As the rural population of the United States becomes more diverse, healthcare providers are serving more patients with backgrounds, beliefs, and language skills that are different from their own. According to Cultural Competence Education for Students in Medicine and Public Health, cultural competencies fall into three domain areas:

  • Knowledge (Cognitive Competencies) – Understanding cultural diversity and the influence of culture on health outcomes
  • Skills (Practice Competencies) – Integrating cultural perspectives into treatment/interventions, communicating in a culturally competent manner with patients, and incorporating culture as a key component of patient history
  • Attitudes (Values/Beliefs Competencies) – Appreciating how cultural competence contributes to the practice of medicine, assessing the impact of one’s own culture on care and service, and realizing that cultural competence involves lifelong learning

Several agencies and organizations provide resources and/or training to implement cultural competence within an organization.

  • National Center for Cultural Competence (NCCC)
    Located at Georgetown University. Contributes a variety of services for health and mental health programs wishing to design, implement, and evaluate culturally and linguistically competent service delivery systems. Services include a resource database, tools for self-assessment, technical assistance, consultation and training events.
  • CDC's Office of Minority Health & Health Equity (OMHHE)
    Develops health policies and programs to eliminate health disparities and serves as a national resource and referral service on minority health issues. Offers student opportunities in public health.
  • Cross Cultural Health Care Program (CCHCP)
    A nonprofit training and consulting organization dedicated to promoting culturally and linguistically appropriate healthcare. Features a medical interpreter training program and offers assessment tools, resource lists, and bilingual medical glossaries in 24 languages.
  • Think Cultural Health
    Provides free online and accredited cultural competence continuing education programs for physicians, pharmacists, nurses, and social workers. A product of the Office of Minority Health, U.S. Department of Health & Human Services.
    Provides free online training in cultural competency skills including health literacy and Limited English Proficiency. This training module can be taken for credit or non-credit and is appropriate for healthcare professionals.

Last Reviewed: 1/20/2017