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Rural family doctors are less burned out, small study finds

Little research is available on burnout rates in rural vs. urban areas. A pilot study found significantly lower burnout rates among rural physicians.

Researchers from the University of South Dakota Sanford School of Medicine surveyed 99 family physicians and found that those practicing in rural areas were less likely to report burnout than those in urban areas or medium-sized towns.

The physicians surveyed are all graduates of the Sioux Falls Family Medicine Residency Program in South Dakota. The pilot study was published in South Dakota Medicine. The researchers categorized rural areas as those with a population under 10,000, medium-sized towns as those with a population of 10,000-50,000, and urban areas as those with a population over 50,000. Their survey asked respondents to what degree they felt burned out, with five options ranging from “not at all” to “completely.”

Burnout rates by population area
Population area Percentage of family doctors reporting burnout
Rural 25%
Medium-sized town 38%
Urban 51%

The study authors, Amy Hogue, MD, and Mark K. Huntington, MD, aren’t aware of other published research that specifically examines burnout rates among physicians in rural and urban areas. Due to their study’s small sample size and other limitations, more thorough research is needed to make a more definitive conclusion on this subject, they note.

Findings opposite of hypothesis

Initially, Dr. Hogue and Dr. Huntington hypothesized that rural doctors—who potentially have fewer resources, increased isolation, longer work hours and lack of privacy from patients—would be more burned out than those in more populated areas. Factors that may contribute to reduced burnout among rural clinicians include having more autonomy in their jobs, having closer relationships with patients and having a greater variety of duties at work, they noted.

On the other hand, the study doesn’t rule out the possibility that some of the physicians may have relocated away from rural areas after becoming burned out, they added.

Drs. Hogue and Huntington are hopeful that their study will help recruit physicians to practice in rural areas.

“Resident physicians who are considering rural practice—but are worried about burnout—can be assured that rural practice may in fact be protective against burnout,” they wrote.

Related reading:

Doctor burnout costs the US $4.6 billion annually, study finds

5 facets of physician burnout

3 comments

  1. Just had an interesting lecture at AUGS yesterday that talked about burnout related to multitasking all day and screen time and the effect on the frontal cortex. I would propose that rural docs are more easily able to focus and have more opportunity to turn off the “screens”. This would then lead to less burnout according to our lecture.

  2. Respectfully,
    My background is general surgery since 1983.
    80’s and early 90’s, I worked some rural hospitals one day per week, balance of practice in a metro area of 450,000 plus.
    The biggest change witnessed and experienced over the years has been transfer of “clinical decisions” toward non physicians. Certainly, some of this is CMS and Insurance driven. Also, seems some urban doctors just want “shift work”.
    I still love surgery, and do a modest volume of 500 plus cases yearly.
    If health holds up and EMR updates do not do me in, I hope to work another 3 or more years.
    Love medicine and surgery.

  3. I’m totally stunned by this finding wow. I have practiced in 4 different rural areas of Missouri from central to northwest northeast and southeast for a span of over 40+years. I would not in anyway recommend rural practice. In every area I’ve worked it’s the same story. A practice with a big majority on welfare and SSI and the bulk of those are fraudulently receiving benefits AND brag openly about it. A practice full let me repeat full of pts who will not do anything to help their health. After all if they couldn’t lie to their caseworker about all their “medical problems”or God forbid ever be able to go to work. Work is considered a very offensive 4 letter word. Add to that the complete lack of respect from your colleagues esp real specialists and from the pt population as well plus considerable decrease in income again due to majority big majority on public aid which doesn’t sometimes even cover expenses. I will say that some of the pts will work for cash to pay for their cigarettes beer and fancy expensive pick up. I would beg anyone who even remotely harbors any thought of doing rural NOT to do it. I guarantee if anyone does it will be the very worst mistake of their entire life. Please do not encourage any Doc to throw their potentially fantastic life and career away by going into rural practice.

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