Exploring rural doctors' early experiences of coping with the emerging COVID-19 pandemic

J Rural Health. 2022 Sep;38(4):923-931. doi: 10.1111/jrh.12654. Epub 2022 Feb 21.


Purpose: To understand how rural doctors (physicians) responded to the emerging COVID-19 pandemic and their strategies for coping.

Methods: Early in the pandemic doctors (physicians) who practise rural and remote medicine were invited to participate through existing rural doctors' networks. Thirteen semi-structured interviews were conducted with rural doctors from 11 countries. Interviews were transcribed verbatim and coded using NVivo. A thematic analysis was used to identify common ideas and narratives.

Findings: Participants' accounts described highly adaptable and resourceful responses to address the crisis. Rapid changes to organizational and clinical practices were implemented, at a time of uncertainty, anxiety, and fear, and with limited information and resources. Strong relationships and commitment to their colleagues and communities were integral to shaping and sustaining these doctors' responses. We identified five common themes underpinning rural doctors' shared experiences: (1) caring for patients in a context of uncertainty, fear, and anxiety; (2) practical solutions through improvising and being resourceful; (3) gaining community trust and cooperation; (4) adapting to unrelenting pressures; and (5) reaffirming commitments. These themes are discussed in relation to the Lazarus and Folkman stress and coping model.

Conclusions: With limited resources and support, these rural doctors' practical responses to the COVID-19 crisis underscore strong problem-focused coping strategies and shared commitments to their communities, patients, and colleagues. They drew support from sharing experiences with peers (emotion-focused coping) and finding positive meanings in their experiences (meaning-based coping). The psychosocial impact on rural doctors working at the limits of their adaptive resources is an ongoing concern.

Keywords: COVID-19 pandemic; coping strategies; rural physicians.

MeSH terms

  • Adaptation, Psychological
  • COVID-19* / epidemiology
  • Humans
  • Pandemics
  • Physicians* / psychology
  • Rural Population