For some individuals, rural locations provide an attractive lifestyle. A peaceful setting, beautiful landscapes and tight-knit communities all can be found in rural environments. However, there are certain detrimental aspects of living in a rural area in the U.S.
One such factor is the lack of healthcare workers, including registered nurses (RNs), which means limited access to healthcare for residents. According to the National Rural Health Association (NRHA), the patient-to-primary care physician ratio in rural areas is only 39.8 physicians per 100,000 people — compared to 53.3 physicians per 100,000 in urban areas. The Rural Health Information Hub breaks down the RN situation, stating that there are 64.5 RNs per 10,000 population in rural communities versus 93.9 in urban settings.
These statistics speak for themselves. While this is a reality for rural areas and citizens across the U.S., understanding the factors that contribute to the problem can help healthcare professionals, policymakers and governments address the issue.
Barriers to the Rural Nursing Profession
Several factors play into the lack of rural healthcare resources. Regarding nurses, the problem is rooted in elements like:
- Education. Many universities are in larger metropolitan areas. Nurses often choose to stay in the area in which they have called “home” during their training.
- Income. Salaries tend to be higher in metropolitan areas versus rural ones.
- Lack of exposure. Rural healthcare requires specific knowledge and skills. Nurses may not feel equipped to meet those demands.
- Lifestyle obstacles. If a nurse has a partner who works outside the healthcare industry, that person may find it difficult to secure a job in a rural area.
With fewer nurses available to provide care, these factors can create a snowball effect. Most healthcare facilities witnessed burnout during the pandemic, and rural communities were hit particularly hard. Even those nurses who stuck with their careers have found it challenging to avoid burnout.
“Everybody is just tired,” shares Danielle Good, a registered nurse at Page Memorial Hospital, a 25-bed facility in Luray, Virginia. “A lot of nurses feel that they can’t provide the care that their patients deserve because they have to keep moving. A 12-hour shift sounds like a lot, but it’s not enough time when you are short-staffed and doing the jobs of several people.”
According to The Center for American Progress, in 2022, 14% of Americans are in rural areas, but nearly two-thirds of the health professional shortage are found among those communities.
Impact on the Patient Population
All these considerations impact the patient population. Individuals in rural areas face limited access to healthcare and medical services, particularly specialty services. To receive specialty care, such as cancer treatments, they may have to travel great distances. These individuals also tend to be in a lower income bracket, so there is a hesitation to seek care for fear of insurmountable healthcare costs.
A third challenge for rural community members is that they typically possess less overall health knowledge than individuals living in urban areas. Individuals may not know how to carry on with health-forward habits such as eating healthfully and exercising. Many feel helpless in advocating for themselves or their loved ones.
There’s a need for better healthcare access, and more healthcare workers, in rural communities. While addressing the nationwide nursing shortage and demand for healthcare staff in rural communities, RNs interested and willing to help small, rural communities have a tremendous opportunity to fulfill a need and provide care to people who do not often find it.
Unique Opportunities for RNs in Rural Communities
Low supply equals high demand. So, even though the salary price point may be slightly lower in rural areas, it’s still desirable. Johnson & Johnson reports that rural nurses in the U.S. can earn an average of $75,000 annually. Salaries in rural communities can go a long way, considering the cost of living in rural communities.
Another unique opportunity for rural RNs is the potential to take on tasks that elevate their skill set. They can work closely with a small-town physician who could serve as a mentor. Nurses gain real-time knowledge they may not have received (or had to pay for) in an educational setting.
Often, nurses rise to managerial positions faster than they would in urban facilities. There’s also the chance they can secure care duties outside of the hospital or clinic environment. This provides more freedom and flexibility they may not otherwise experience.
Fulfill Your Calling With a BSN Degree
If you decide the benefits of serving a rural community are in line with your career plan, there are many ways to get there. One is to earn your Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) degree. However, while many RN to BSN programs are available, not all come with the same benefits.
For instance, the RN to BSN online program at Southern Utah University (SUU) offers an accelerated program that students can complete in as few as 10 months with a pay-by-course option. Nurses can choose from six start dates per calendar year.
Additionally, the knowledge gained throughout the coursework prepares nurses to accept the challenges of a rural setting and rise above them. The Health Promotion and Education course ensures nurses enter rural communities with the knowledge they need to help patients protect their own health. Community Health Nursing is another course that helps nurses understand the various circumstances rural residents face.
Graduates of SUU’s program possess essential skills unique to rural communities. They can feel confident entering those patient populations with the knowledge and skills to optimize patient care and expand access to rural communities with complex care needs.
Learn more about Southern Utah University’s RN to BSN online program.