Rural Health Care Workforce: Opportunities to Improve Care Delivery

The latest in the Center for Rural Affairs' series on rural health care reform issues ( concerns the rural health care workforce, one of the most important but overlooked rural issues in the Congressional debate.
Rural America faces a critical shortage of primary care providers, the health care professionals that provide the vast majority of personal, day-to-day health care needs. This shortage jeopardizes the nation's ability to provide necessary medical and health care needs for rural people. Primary care professionals not only provide necessary medical services, but also offer health promotion and chronic disease prevention. With rural health education resources lacking and rural areas suffering higher rates of chronic diseases and conditions, health promotion and disease prevention are critical long-term investments for rural communities.
The primary care workforce is composed primarily of physicians, but other professionals such as nurses, nurse practitioners, physician assistants and certified nurse midwives play an important role in the rural workforce. No one type of provider can resolve the rural workforce shortage, but taking steps to enhance team care and increasing the number of professionals in rural areas will address health care availability for rural residents.
Most of the health care reform debate has focused on coverage, only one side of the health care coin. Expanding coverage may ultimately exacerbate access problems and lead to further inequities (especially in rural areas). Coverage does not equal access. It is important for any reform legislation to develop a more accessible, understandable and affordable system for all Americans.

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