Context: Rural areas have fewer physicians compared to urban areas, and rural emergency departments often rely on community or contracted providers for staffing. The emergency department workforce is composed of a variety of physician specialties and clinicians.
Purpose: To determine the distribution of emergency department clinicians and the proportion of care they provide across the rural-urban continuum.
Methods: Cross-sectional analysis of secondary data. The distribution of clinicians who provide emergency department care by county was determined using the 2003 Area Resource File. The percentage of emergency department care provided by clinician type was determined using 2003 Medicare claims data. Logistic regression analyses assessed the odds of being seen by different clinicians with a patient's rurality when presenting to the emergency department.
Findings: Board-certified emergency physicians provide 75% of all emergency department care, but only 48% for Medicare beneficiaries of the most rural of counties. The bulk of the remainder of emergency department care is largely provided by family physicians and general internists, with the percentage increasing with rurality. The likelihood of being seen by an emergency physician in the emergency department decreases 5-fold as rurality increases, while being seen by a family physician increases 7-fold.
Conclusion: Nonemergency physicians provide a significant portion of emergency department care, particularly in rural areas. Medical specialties must cooperate to ensure the availability of high-quality emergency department care to all Americans regardless of physician specialty.