Objective: To examine how access to outpatient medical care varies with local primary care physician densities across primary care service areas (PCSAs) in the rural Southeast, for adults as a whole and separately for the elderly and poor.
Data sources: Access data from a 2002 to 2003 telephone survey of 4,311 adults living in 298 PCSAs within 150 rural counties in eight Southeastern states were linked geographically with physician practice location data from the American Medical and American Osteopathic Associations and population data from the U.S. Census.
Study design: In a cross-sectional study design, we used a series of logistic regression models to assess how 26 measures of various aspects of access to outpatient physician services varied for subjects arranged into five groups based on the population-per-physician ratios of the PCSAs where they lived.
Principal findings: Among adults as a whole, more individuals reported traveling over 30 minutes for outpatient care in PCSAs with more than 3,500 people per physician than in PCSAs with fewer than 1,500 people per physician (39.1 versus 18.5 percent, p<.001) and more reported travel difficulties. Otherwise, PCSA density of primary care physicians was unrelated to reported barriers to care, unrelated to people's satisfaction with care, and unrelated to indicators of people's use of services. Use rates of six recommended preventive health services varied in no consistent direction with physician densities. Among the elderly, only the proportion traveling over 30 minutes for care was greater in areas with lowest physician densities. Among subjects covered under Medicaid or uninsured, lower local physician densities were associated with longer travel time, difficulties with travel and reaching one's physician by phone, and two areas of dissatisfaction with care.
Conclusions: For adults as a whole in the rural South and for the elderly there, low local primary care physician densities are associated with travel inconvenience but not convincingly with other aspects of access to outpatient care. Access for those insured under Medicaid and the uninsured, however, is in more ways sensitive to local physician densities.