Physician-to-population ratio is a baseline metric used in determining whether a population has suitable access to healthcare services. A shortage of qualified medical personnel creates what is known as a medically underserved area / population (MUA/P). Four main characteristics are used in determining a medically underserved area: 1) definition of the location (geography and demographics), 2) a compilation of the most recent data available regarding infant mortality rate, the portion of the population that is 65+, population totals, as well as the number of full-time physicians in the area, 3) physician-to-population ratio, and 4) the Index of Medical Underservice (IMU) for the region. The Index of Medical Underservice is a metric against which the region’s data is compared to determine whether the locality is a medically underserved area / population.
Though the United States has some of the most advanced hospitals, medical research facilities, and professional medical staff in the world, there is still a pronounced shortage of medical professionals in many parts of the country. Unfortunately for citizens, this shortage is projected to become significantly worse over the coming decades. In recent years, hospital mergers have made many municipal health networks much larger, giving medical centers in large cities increased purchasing power and negotiating leverage with insurance companies and medical supply distributors. This in turn means that many new medical professionals are attracted to the state-of-the-art equipment and high patient volume that these medical centers possess. As a consequence, rural medical centers across the country now find themselves approaching the medically underserved area threshold.
Several solutions have been proposed to correct the physician-to-population ratio in rural areas, as well as to address the rapidly increasing shortage of nurses across the nation. Among these solutions is to increase incentive for undergraduates to enroll in medical school via increasing the funding available to institutions that provide students with medical training. More funds for these medical schools often means better equipment, more full-time staff, and the capacity to accommodate more students. For smaller hospitals and regional medical centers, the cost of financial obligations at the administrative level can be offset by increased Medicaid and Medicare payments. Medical liability laws are also a huge concern. If a new medical professional feels that a rural area has stricter liability laws regarding certain hospital procedures, he or she is much less likely to begin a new practice under such constraints.
Other incentives may be considered for new medical professionals who relocate to medically underserved areas, including significant bonuses, vacation time, or discounts with local businesses. If rural communities wish to increase retention of new medical professionals over the long-term, promoting a community culture that appreciates physicians and community health clinics is essential.