Distribution of Physician Specialties by Rurality

J Rural Health. 2021 Sep;37(4):714-722. doi: 10.1111/jrh.12548. Epub 2020 Dec 4.


Purpose: Physicians of all specialties are more likely to live and work in urban areas than in rural areas. Physician availability affects the health and economy of rural communities. This study aimed to measure and update the availability of physician specialties in rural counties.

Methods: This analysis included all counties with a Rural-Urban Continuum Code (RUCC) between 4 and 9. Geographically identified physician data from the 2019 American Medical Association Masterfile was merged with 2019 County Health Rankings, the Census Bureau's 2010 county-level population data, and 2010 Topologically Integrated Geographic Encoding and Referencing shapefiles. Multivariate logistic regression was performed to assess the availability of physicians by specialty in rural counties.

Findings: Of the 1,947 rural counties in our sample, 1,825 had at least 1 physician. Specialties including emergency medicine, cardiology, psychiatry, diagnostic radiology, general surgery, anesthesiology, and OB/GYN were less available than primary care physicians (PCPs) in all rural counties. The probability of a rural county having a PCP was the highest in RUCC 4 (1.0) and lowest in RUCC 8 (0.93). Of all primary care specialties, family medicine was the most evenly distributed across the rural continuum, with a probability of 1.0 in RUCC 4 and 0.88 in RUCC 9.

Conclusions: Family medicine is the physician specialty most likely to be present in rural counties. Policy efforts should focus on maintaining the training and scope of practice of family physicians to serve the health care needs of rural communities where other specialties are less likely to practice.

Keywords: access to care; physician supply; rural health; workforce.

MeSH terms

  • Humans
  • Medicine*
  • Physicians, Family
  • Physicians, Primary Care*
  • Rural Health Services*
  • Rural Population
  • United States