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Why doctors choose small towns: A developmental model of rural physician
recruitment and retentionq
Christine Hancocka,*, Alan Steinbacha, Thomas S. Nesbittb, Shelley R. Adlerc, Colette L. Auerswalda,d,e
aUC Berkeley – UC San Francisco Joint Medical Program, Berkeley, CA, United States
bUC Davis School of Medicine, CA, United States
cUCSF Department of Family and Community Medicine; UCSF Osher Center for Integrative Medicine, CA, United States
dUC Berkeley – UC San Francisco Joint Medical Program, UC Berkeley School of Public Health, CA, United States
eDivision of Adolescent Medicine, Department of Pediatrics, UC San Francisco School of Medicine, United States
a r t i c l e i n f o
Available online 9 September 2009
Sense of place
Rural health policy
a b s t r a c t
Shortages of health care professionals have plagued rural areas of the USA for more than a century.
Programs to alleviate them have met with limited success. These programs generally focus on factors that
affect recruitment and retention, with the supposition that poor recruitment drives most shortages. The
strongest known influence on rural physician recruitment is a ‘‘rural upbringing,’’ but little is known
about how this childhood experience promotes a return to rural areas, or how non-rural physicians
choose rural practice without such an upbringing. Less is known about how rural upbringing affects
retention. Through twenty-two in-depth, semi-structured interviews with both rural- and urban-raised
physicians in northeastern California and northwestern Nevada, this study investigates practice location
choice over the life course, describing a progression of events and experiences important to rural practice
choice and retention in both groups.
Study results suggest that rural exposure via education, recreation, or upbringing facilitates future
rural practice through four major pathways. Desires for familiarity, sense of place, community involvement,
and self-actualization were the major motivations for initial and continuing small-town residence choice.
A history of strong community or geographic ties, either urban or rural, also encouraged initial rural
practice. Finally, prior resilience under adverse circumstances was predictive of continued retention in
the face of adversity. Physicians’ decisions to stay or leave exhibited a cost-benefit pattern once their
basic needs were met. These results support a focus on recruitment of both rural-raised and community-
oriented applicants to medical school, residency, and rural practice. Local mentorship and ‘‘place-specific
education’’ can support the integration of new rural physicians by promoting self-actualization,
community integration, sense of place, and resilience. Health policy efforts to improve the physician
workforce must address these complexities in order to support the variety of physicians who choose and
remain in rural practice.
? 2009 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.
doctors in rural and remote areas of the United States, and little has
changed despite considerable attention to the problem (Cutchin,
1997a; Owen, Hayden, & Bowman, 2005; Rabinowitz, Diamond,
Hojat, & Hazelwood, 1999a). Today, twenty percent of the U.S. pop-
ulation lives in rural areas, generally defined as counties with no
metro area larger than 50,000 residents, but only nine percent of
areas are considered Health Professions Shortage Areas (HPSAs), and
1998; Hart, Salsberg, Phillips, & Lishner, 2002).
Unfortunately, challenges with rural recruitment and retention
are projected to continue (Hart et al., 2002; Ricketts, 1999). The
proportion of physicians in rural practice has fallen steadily over
the past thirty years, and fewer than four percent of recent U.S.
qWe would like to thank Valley Emergency Physician’s Medical Group, UC-White
Mountain Research Station and the UCB-UCSF Joint Medical Program for their
generous support of this project. Allen Pred and Paul Groth provided valuable input
on project design and earlier drafts. Also, many thanks to the physicians, nurses,
and office staff who gave generously of their time and resources to make this
project a reality.
* Corresponding author. UC Berkeley – UC San Francisco Joint Medical Program,
570 University Hall #1190, Berkeley, CA 94720, United States. Tel.: þ1510 642 5482.
E-mail address: Christine.Hancock@ucsf.edu (C. Hancock).
Contents lists available at ScienceDirect
Social Science & Medicine
journal homepage: www.elsevier.com/locate/socscimed
0277-9536/$ – see front matter ? 2009 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.
Social Science & Medicine 69 (2009) 1368–1376
Author's personal copy
medical school graduates plan to practice in small towns (Rabino-
witz, Diamond, Markham, & Rabinowitz, 2005). In the meantime,
specialization in the medical workforce has increased while fewer
specialists choose to practice in rural areas (AAMC, 2004). How to
recruit and retain rural physicians and other health professionals
therefore remains a crucial focus of rural health policy and research
(Geyman, Hart, Norris, Coombs, & Lishner, 2000; Hart et al., 2002;
Hegney, McCarthy, Rogers-Clark, & Gorman, 2002).
Explanations and mitigation
Explanations for the rural physician shortage range from a lack
of attention to rural concerns at a domestic policy level to physician
preference for specialties with highly controllable schedules.
Disparities in physician recruitment and retention have been the
focus of most studies because they can be influenced more easily
than can the economic or political circumstances that also
contribute to physician shortages, such as falling Medicare reim-
bursement rates or the decline of small-scale agriculture (COGME,
1998, Lehmann, Dielman, & Martineau, 2008). In the rural health
literature, recruitment has been shown to be the driving force
behind most shortages, though retention is thought to hold more
promise in resolving them because the factors associated with it are
more modifiable. Call schedules can be changed, upbringing cannot
(Pathman, Konrad, & Agnew,1994; Pathman, Konrad, Dann, & Koch,
2004; Rabinowitz, Diamond, Markham, & Hazelwood, 1999b)
(Table 1). Nevertheless, effective mitigation programs address both
recruitment and retention as well as community and regional
development (Porterfield et al., 2003).
Recruitment and rural upbringing
Of all of the factors involved in effective recruitment,
‘‘rural upbringing,’’ defined as spending all of one’s childhood in a
rural location, more than ten years in a rural location, or calling
a rural place one’s childhood home, is the strongest predictor of
rural practice choice (Geyman et al., 2000; Laven & Wilkinson,
2003). However, despite the attention paid to its importance, there
is little understanding of the process by which upbringing influ-
ences later affinity for rural settings. Furthermore, this finding does
not explain the fact that 74% of rural physicians were not raised in
rural settings; presumably, some other experience or ‘‘component’’
of a rural upbringing influenced their decision about where to
practice (Owen et al., 2005; Pathman et al., 1994).
Scholars in other disciplines have identified characteristics
associated with rurality that are thought to influence behavior and
life trajectories (Beggs, Haines, & Hurlbert,1996; Bell,1992; Ching &
Creed,1997; Kahn,1997; Williams,1975), but these literatures have
generally not been applied to questions of rural health and physi-
cian shortages. Specifically, scholars suggest that despite the fact
that people’s experiences of ‘‘rural’’ are widely variable (Christman,
2004; Woods, 2005), there are fundamental cultural and physical
differences between urban and rural spaces which are remarkably
consistent and persistent through space and time. Geographically,
rural places are defined by their low population and material
resource density (Christman, 2004) while psychologists and
educators find that rural people interact more with their physical
environment and rely more on natural cycles and resources
(Lockhart, 1999; Woods, 2005).
Meanwhile, ethnographic studies in rural communities have
consistently described characteristics of a distinct ‘‘rural culture,’’
including a focus on community (Slama, 2004) and a valuation of
practicalityand resilience (Philo, Parr, & Burns, 2003). These studies
suggest that rural residents see themselves as pragmatic, commu-
nity-minded, and able to endure challenges because of their prior
experience with hardship. Whether or not these differences are
always present, they create functional dichotomies between
outsiders and insiders (Bell,1992; Pugh, 2004; Halfacree,1994) and
can create differences in practice and residence choice between
rural and urban-raised physicians.
Recruitment and familiarity
Importantly, not only do rural-raised students seek out rural
environments in general, they also tend to practice in communities
in the general size range of their hometown with statistically
significant regularity (Costa, Schrop, McCord, & Gillanders, 2006;
Matsumoto, Inoue, & Kajii, 2008). Qualitative studies also show that
physicians describe an explicit motivation practice in a community
similar to the one where they were raised (Kazanjian & Pagliccia,
1996; Tolhurst, 2006). These findings are consistent with twin
studies that show that residential environment as a child accounts
for more than 50% of the variance in residence choice for younger
adults (Whitfield, Zhu, Heath, & Martin, 2006).
Recruitment and other experience
In addition to prior rural residence and familiarity, other expe-
riences, including a rural residency track, a rural medical school track,
a history of community service, plans to practice family medicine
upon entry into medical school, and loan repayment program
participation are also independently predictive of future rural
practice (Table 1). Past studies have suggested that these factors are
mainly a manifestation of an existing inclination toward rural
practice (with the exception of loan repayment program partici-
pation), but are sometimes important in identifying or influencing
Factors affecting recruitment and retention of rural physicians in previous studies.
Factors influencing recruitment Factors influencing retention
? Rural upbringing (Daniels et al., 2007; Hegney et al., 2002; Rabinowitz et al.,
1999a; Tolhurst, 2006).
? Rural residency experience (Daniels et al., 2007; Pathman, Steiner, Jones, &
? Rural-focused medical school track (Rabinowitz et al., 2005; Talley, 1990).
? Personality and practice compatibility (Cutchin et al., 1994; Hart et al., 2002).
? Reasonable workload and call schedule (Cutchin, 1997a; Pathman et al., 2004;
Humphreys et al., 2002).
? Financial sustainability of practice (Pan, Dunkin, Muus, Harris, & Geller, 1995;
Rabinowitz et al., 1999a).
? Owning one’s own practice (Pathman et al., 2004)
? Community service orientation (Daniels et al., 2007; Madison, 1994;
? Plans to practice family medicine upon medical school matriculation
(Madison, 1994; Tolhurst, 2006).
? Loan repayment program participation (Rabinowitz et al., 2001).
? Employment opportunities for spouse (Han and Humphreys, 2006;
? Parenting a minor-aged child (Pathman et al., 2004)
? Sociocultural integration (Cutchin, 1997a; Han & Humphreys, 2006; Hegney
et al., 2002; Pan et al., 1995).
C. Hancock et al. / Social Science & Medicine 69 (2009) 1368–13761369
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specialty choice in undecided students (Rabinowitz, Diamond,
Markham, & Paynter, 2001). It is not known how the initial ‘‘rural
inclination’’ is developed or fostered over time.
Though rural physician retention is generally assumed to be
poor, four of five relevant studies show that it is actually compa-
rable to urban settings, and is also equivalent between more and
less underserved rural areas (Luman, Zewifler, & Grumbach, 2007;
Pathman et al., 2004; Philo et al., 2003). However, keeping physi-
cians in rural areas remains important because they are so difficult
to replace. Efforts are now being made to retain doctors in rural
areas even longer than in urban settings to help offset poor
recruitment (Rabinowitz et al., 2005).
Studies have consistently shown that practice-related and life-
style factors, such as compatibility with the medical community or
parenting a minor-aged child, play much more of a role in retention
than ‘‘pre-determined’’ factors such as upbringing, training, and
community service orientation (Mayo & Mathews, 2006; Rabino-
witz et al., 1999b). In other words, physicians are generally willing
to practice in seemingly ‘‘undesirable’’ or unfamiliar communities
once they become settled; those who experience intolerable and
unmodifiable circumstances emigrate at approximately the same
rate as physicians in urban settings. These more flexible factors that
do influence retention include workload, financial sustainability of
practice, compatibility with the local medical community, owning
one’s own practice and ‘‘sociocultural integration,’’ the extent to
which a physician becomes involved in their new community
(Cutchin, 1997a; Pathman et al., 2004) (Table 1).
Integration and retention
Another important component of retention is a smooth initial
transition to a new cultural and practice environment. Surveys and
qualitative studies show that interventions supportive of initial
integration, such as informational orientations, introduction to
important community contacts (Han & Humphreys, 2006), and
‘‘nurturing’’ of physicians by recruiters, other physicians, and
community members (Felix, Shepherd, & Stewart, 2003), can
improve integration and retention.
Cutchin (1997a) developed a model of physician integration/
retention that describes an obligatory and ongoing process in
which doctors attempt to maintain their security, freedom and
identity within a particular community and occupational context.
While striving to develop these foundations, physicians interact
with their ‘‘places’’ in a way that integrates them, barring intoler-
able conditions that force them to leave (Cutchin, 1997a, 1997b).
This study is one of the first to describe integration/retention as
‘‘influences.’’ It also emphasizes the importance of the physician’s
environment, which many studies tend to downplay, instead
the applicability of this model is limited by a lack of description of
the psychological processes physicians use to integrate, making the
design of interventions difficult.
Two concepts that can potentially fill this gap are sense of place
and community participation. Sense of place refers to the affective
bond that people formwith places, and has also been termed ‘‘place
attachment,’’ place identity, and rootedness (Heidegger, 1962; Low
& Altman, 1992; Massey, 1994; Tuan, 1977). ‘‘Place’’ in this context
commonly refers to the multidimensional nature of a given loca-
tion, including both the ‘‘natural’’ and ‘‘social’’ aspects of that site
(Seamon, 1980; Tuan, 1977).
Chawla (1992), Sobel (1996), and Hay (1998) have described the
development of a sense of place as a process that mirrors the
formation of relationships to places in childhood and moves from
empathy for the familiar, to exploration of the home range –
particularly natural places such as woods and lakes, to social action,
where people move their focus back into town and become more
involved in the community and the application of their knowledge.
The development of community engagement and participation
is less well-theorized than sense of place, but is highly predictive of
rural recruitment (Daniels, VanLeit, Skipper, Sanders, & Rhyne,
2007; Madison,1994; Tolhurst, 2006) and retention (Carlier, Carlier,
& Bisset, 2005; Pathman, Steiner, Williams, & Riggins, 1998).
Furthermore, as discussed above, community engagement is one of
the hallmarks of rural-urban differences and facilitates successful
adjustment to rural living.
In addition to striving for community and place integration,
physicians are motivated by a desire to live happy and satisfying
lives. This idea is succinctly expressed in Abraham Maslow’s hier-
archy of needs, which suggests that people sequentially work to
satisfy increasingly complex ‘‘longings,’’ moving from basic physi-
ological needs to a need for morality, creativity, and truth (Maslow,
1954) (Fig. 1).
While Maslow’s work has been extensively criticized for being
excessively individualistic (Geller, 1982), nativistic (Neher, 1991),
and not reflective of the multiple motivations and strategies that
people employ in the pursuit of fulfillment, it is also widely used
and intuitively understandable in fields ranging from business to
education (Keil, 1999). Therefore, despite limitations, Maslow’s
hierarchy serves as an effective jumping off point for this study
because it provides an applicable framework for administrators,
policy makers and program directors to understand physicians’
Summary of prior research
A ‘‘rural upbringing’’ is known to be the most important
predictive factor of rural physician recruitment as well as a catalyst
of retention, but little is known about the means by which this
occurs. An interdisciplinary review of the literature implicates
a variety of factors in this process, including sense of place,
community participation, self-actualization, and familiarity, though
little is known about how these components act over time. In this
study, we used qualitative methods to examine and describe the
process by which both urban and rural-raised physicians choose,
settle into, and stay in rural settings. From our findings, we
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C. Hancock et al. / Social Science & Medicine 69 (2009) 1368–13761370
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developed a descriptive model, informed by both existing literature
and our data.
A semi-structured interview guide and demographic question-
naire were administered to twenty-two committed primary care
physicians in rural northeastern California and northwestern
Nevada during June and July of 2006 and 2007. This area is
historicallycharacterized bya low population density and difficulty
recruiting and retaining physicians due to its remoteness (Cro-
martie & Wardell, 1999; Larson et al., 2003). Qualitative methods
were chosen because of the descriptive, exploratory, nature of the
research question and our need to modify the study’s focus
depending on initial results.
Following approval of the study protocol by the UC Berkeley
Institutional Review Board, an initial cohort of physicians was
recruited from a December 2005 meeting of the Valley Emergency
Physicians’ Medical Group, a professional corporation that staffs
rural clinics and emergency rooms throughout the American West.
Because many of these physicians were initially recruited for
temporary positions, they represent a more ‘‘marginal’’ and
geographically diverse subset of the rural physician workforce than
has been investigated by other studies (e.g. Backer, McIlvain,
Paulman, & Ramaekers, 2006) and therefore can provide more
information on the range of reasons physicians choose rural prac-
tice. Five of twenty-two invited subjects met inclusion criteria and
chose to participate, providing an initial response rate of 22%.
Snowball sampling was used to increase the size and diversity of
the final sample, which consisted of 5 initial recruits and
17subsequent contacts. The lead investigator traveled to physicians’
communities to conduct interviews at homes or workplaces.
Eligibility criteria for the study included active primary care
practice in a rural community and full-time residence in that
community. Primary care specialties were defined to include family
medicine, internal medicine, geriatrics, pediatrics, and emergency
medicine (Sam, 1999). While emergency physicians are commonly
of practice in rural settings falls much closer to the practice of
a family physician, and many rural emergency rooms are actually
staffed by family physicians (Williams, Ehrlich, & Prescott, 2001).
Inclusion criteria also included residence in the community of
practice or its outskirts for five years or more, which represents
‘‘longer than average’’ retention time based on several recent
2004; Pathman, Konrad, & Ricketts, 1992; Ricketts & Randolph,
2007). ‘‘Rural’’ was defined using the California Office of Statewide
Planning and Development (OSHPD) definition of Rural Medical
of less than 250 persons per square mile, and contain no census-
defined place with population exceeding of 50,000 within the area.
Following written consent, interviews were digitally recorded
and transcribed. Field notes and demographic questionnaires were
compiled to facilitate triangulation and comparison with other
interview samples. Interview length averaged 50 minutes, with
a range of 20–80 minutes (SD¼18 min).
Initial interview domains and related questions were developed
through an extensive review of the literature on sense of place in
psychology, geography, philosophy, education, and sociology.
Domains included place and upbringing, place and training, recruit-
ment, community integration, current community and patient profile,
activities/retention/satisfaction, self-image and community role, and
future plans and projections.
Thematic codes were generated from literature on place and
community integration and the repetition of key words and phra-
ses or common plot structures in the transcripts (Cresswell, 1998;
Lockhart, 1999). To facilitate consistency and rigor, a comprehen-
sive code book with definitions of each code was developed and
reviewed on multiple occasions by the investigator and a second
coder trained in qualitative research methodology and familiar
with rural medical practice. Relationships between codes were also
noted and diagrammed in order to describe the process by which
integration and retention unfolded over time. A third qualitative
researcher reviewed all final coding categories and analyses.
Following initial coding and concept development, the domains of
adversity, resilience and self-actualization were added to capture the
range of subject responses. The final model was presented to and
discussed individually with four of the research subjects and
several community members and hospital administrators in order
to evaluate its descriptive validity, and presented to a 30-member
forum of interested community members in the study area. No
significant changes were made to the model as a result of these
The lead investigator also resided in the study area, engaging in
extensivedialoguewith physiciansand community members about
the emerging results of the study. This prolonged engagement in
the field was also used to ensure the validity of these categories and
relationships (Cresswell & Miller, 2000). Pseudonyms were
substituted for all personal and place names and other potentially
Interviewees were generally representative of rural primary
care physicians in terms of their gender, medical education, and
specialty (Hart et al., 2002, Wheat, Higginbotham, Yu, & Leeper,
2005). All were white, married, and middle aged, with a mean age
of 54.9 years and a range of 38–74 years. Seventy-seven percent of
interviewees were male, 82% had children, and 50% grew up in
a rural area. On average, interviewees had 2.46 children, with an
average age of 20.9 years.
All physicians completed medical school and a primary care
residency, with 55% (11) board certified in family medicine, 27% (6)
in emergency medicine, 14% (3) in internal medicine, and 9% (2) in
pediatrics. Sixty-eight percent attended a publicly funded medical
school, with just one of the twenty-two (5%) attending osteopathic
school. Eighty percent of physicians worked full time (more than
32 hours per week). Nine percent (2) owned private solo practices;
23% (5) were part-owners in private small group practice (2–7
physicians), 27% (6) were in part-owners in private large group
practice (?8 physicians), 36% (8) were in public small group prac-
tice (including Rural Health Centers and small publicly funded rural
hospitals), and 5% (1) were inpublic large group practice. Their self-
reported median gross income was $187,000 per year from all
sources, with one physician declining to report income. Mean
retention time in their current positionwas 20.7 years, with a range
of 5–44 years (Table 2).
The census-designated places (towns or cities) inhabited by
study participants were impoverished and bordered on remote
C. Hancock et al. / Social Science & Medicine 69 (2009) 1368–13761371
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(Fig. 2). Based on 2000 U.S. Census Data, they had an average
population of 3026 residents, and were located in counties with an
average population density of 9.8 people/mile2. Half of the
communities in the sample qualified as ‘‘frontier,’’ while the other
half fell on the small end of ‘‘rural’’ based on the MSSA definition.
Mean household income in the physician’s communities was
$30,251, 73% of the national average, and an average of 14% of
families had incomes below the federal poverty line. Mean age of
community residents was 41.3 years.
Retention: pathways and processes
This study began as an investigation of the effect of exposure to
rural environments on rural recruitment and retention. However, it
became apparent that ‘‘sense of place’’ did not capture the breadth
of reasons why physicians entered and chose to remain in rural
practice. Therefore, the range of domains was expanded to better
describe the sample. The resulting model suggests that there are
four main pathways to successful and fulfilling rural practice –
familiarity, community, sense of place, and self-actualization – with
respondents fairly evenly split between the four (Fig. 3).
Seven of twenty-two respondents stated that they chose rural
practice primarily because they wanted to live in a familiar natural
or social environment. This setting gave them a sense of trust,
comfort, and ease, and required far less cognitive and social effort
than attempting to integrate into a new type of community.
I tried to live in the big city because I grew up in a small
town. so I wanted to experience the big city, but it just never
stuck. I just migrated back up here. I grew up in small towns, I
was familiar with small towns. I wasn’t familiar, used to, or
accustomed to all the things that BigCity offered, so I didn’t
miss any of that stuff [and].by coming up here, I was gaining
a lot. I mean, I like small towns. I think it was just comfort
level. -Tom, 49
Meanwhile, for others, familiarity grew out of rural recreational
or job experience as a child or young adult.
Well, I worked in Big Timber for a couple of summers on a dude
ranch, which was out at the end of the road. And then I went to
college in LittleCity and had access to ten zillion rural areas
there. So I just like it out here. -Mattie, 58
Furthermore, four participants chose medical schools in rural or
‘‘rural-feeling’’ environments because they felt ‘‘more comfortable’’
in that setting, 4 sought out 1-month rural experiences during
medical school that helped solidify their interest in rural practice, 4
did a rural rotation during their residency, and 2 attended a resi-
dency program focused on care of rural and underserved pop-
ulations. Notably, only 1 of 22 stated that a rural experience during
their undergraduate or post-graduate medical education was the
primary reason for their choice of rural practice.
In all cases, these interviewees expressed a sense of ‘‘at-home-
ness’’ in places that reminded them of their childhood residence or
holiday retreat, and that familiarity was a major factor in their
decision about where to live and practice.
Selected demographic characteristics of physician participants.
Age (mean, years)54.9
Mean number of children2.46
Mean age of children20.9
Income (gross, before taxes)a
Practice type (Large¼ ?8 physicians)
Private Small Group
Private Large Group
Public Small Group
Public Large Group
aOne physician declined to report income.
Fig. 2. General locations of study sites.
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Nine of twenty-two respondents cited community-related
reasons as one of their primary motivations for choosing rural
practice, including a desire to work in a community with a large
underserved population, or a desire for continuity and close rela-
tionships with patients and staff. They frequently participated in
community service and described intimate relationships with staff,
patients, and other community members. They also minimized the
costs that such a tight-knit community can entail, such as a lack of
privacy and increased professional demands.
it would be connectiveness [i.e., connectedness]. You’re so con-
nected with people. I know so many people involved in so many
road.that connectiveness provides a great deal of meaning in
what I would call a very fragmented world. -Lynne, 42
The foundation for this pathway was, in all but one case,
a previous experience with tight-knit community (either rural or
urban) that eased their adjustment to their current situation.
Sense of place
Six of twenty-two respondents said their decision to practice in
a rural area was primarily motivated by a desire to live in a place
where they felt connected to and inspired by the natural environ-
ment, and satisfied with opportunities for outdoor recreation and
exploration. Furthermore, even for physicians who did not cite
I mean, the reason I designed this building.with my office
facing west tothe mountains, was so that I can go out. for fresh
air, so that when I get all wound up.I just open the door and
look where I live, and I realize that 99% of the U.S. comes here on
vacation, and I live here, and that’s worth a lot.I’m always
going to earn less than my peers. Always. But the view out my
back window is worth about $15,000 to me. Brings me about up
to par. -Aiden, 40
Physicians’ descriptions of their place integration process were
consistent with a progression fromempathy to exploration to social
action, with each stage preceded by the previous one.
We started [out] just driving up to the mountains and through
the hills.. and thenwe started taking dirt roads off into the rocks,
and then doing some hiking. and then going to the lake, and
then taking different roads.it was kind of a gradual thin-
g.until we learned the lay of the land. and then we started
branching out from what we knew. -Sam, 73
Fig. 3. An integrated conceptual understanding of how rural exposure and upbringing improve rural retention rates among practicing physicians.
C. Hancock et al. / Social Science & Medicine 69 (2009) 1368–1376 1373
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The outcome of this process was a continually created ‘‘sense of
place’’ that provided a strong foundation for continued residence in
their community. Well-integrated physicians described local root-
edness, belonging, and knowledge of their local surroundings, as
well as a sense of health and well-being when spending time there.
Finally, seven respondents chose rural practice primarily
because they felt that rural areas were places where theycould lead
happy and successful personal and professional lives; rural envi-
ronments provided a supportive and nurturing environment for
their journey toward self-actualization. Personally, these physicians
described rural places as good locations to raise children, settle
down, and make a life for themselves. Professionally, they felt that
their practices provided sufficient variety, autonomy, and oppor-
tunities to ‘‘make a difference.’’
I get to be a doctor here. And that’s probably the biggest thin-
g.I’m happy. I’m doing well. We’re saving people’s lives out
here because if weweren’t here there would be nobody. There is
no health care, so we’re providing care where there is none. And
to put it bluntly, I’mwell compensated.and I can make my own
schedule. -Billy, 38
Physicians perceived their communities as places capable of
meeting the range of their needs, beginning with basic physiolog-
ical needs and moving through security and emotional needs
toward a sense of creativity, meaning and purpose. While this
theme overlapped somewhat with the idea of ‘‘community,’’
physicians who cited ‘‘self-actualization’’ discussed the breadth of
ways in which their needs were satisfied by their community.
Adversity and resilience
External circumstances affected physicians’ sense of familiarity,
community attachment, sense of place, and self-actualization.
Those practicing in harsh political or financial environments fared
less well and were less satisfied than those with more support. The
challenges they faced included a lack of basic services, financial
constraints, feelings of alienation and isolation, a lack of profes-
sional opportunities, limited resources for children and partners,
and the personal and professional challenges that accompanied
including humor, flexibility, maintenance of an internal locus of
control, and effective use of technology. Most were also able to
identify specific experiences during their childhood or training that
taught them the skills and attitudes theyemployed on a daily basis.
‘‘[One of my points of reference] is having been [a physician] in
a refugee camp in Vietnam.I had a 120 bed hospital. I was there
had 300 outpatients a day, 120 inpatients. Ten deaths a day. So
you can imagine what kind of a stressful situation that would be.
You have to do whatever you can and you triage and you learn to
recognize what you can do and what you can’t do.’’ -Arthur, 62
When faced with adversityagain, these physiciansdrewon their
experience to respond to challenges in ways that fostered their
growth instead of destroying their resolve.
Deciding to stay
In response to questions about what would force them to leave
rural practice, the majority of physicians envisioned a few ‘‘intol-
erable’’ circumstances. These triggers or ‘‘thresholds’’ included the
destruction of their home, the failure of their hospital, or their
partner’s refusal to stay. Beyond this threshold, physicians weighed
the costs and benefits of remaining in their communities and made
constant reassessments about whether or not to stay (For further
description of these factors, please see Fig. 3).
The process by which physicians chooseto stay inruralpractice is
complex and variable. Nevertheless, it is clear that rural exposure,
of these, provides an early foundation of familiarity, resilience, and
community/place integration that drives interest in post-graduate
rural practice. Thus, our findings are consistent with many other
factor in rural practice choice (e.g. Daniels et al., 2007; Hegney et al.,
2002; Rabinowitz et al., 1999b). However, they also support the
impact of shorter-term experiences at summer camps, family farms,
rural life and social norms, these experiences ease the transition to
post-graduate rural practice, a result also discussed previously
(Kazanjian & Pagliccia,1996; Pathman et al.,1998).
Once primed for rural living through early experience and later
reinforcement, physicians are drawn to rural practice for a combi-
nation of four main reasons: familiarity, community involvement,
interact and change over time, all subjects identified one or two of
The importance of the first pathway, familiarity, seems self-
evident: past residence type is highly predictive of future residence
type (Costa et al., 2006). However, it is important to reiterate that
familiarity with rural areas based on experiences other than past
residence also opened doors to rural practice; some physicians
endeavored to create a new life for themselves in a location that
was familiar but not exactly like their original ‘‘home.’’ This influ-
ential exposure tended to occur in childhood/adolescence rather
than later in their education.
The second pathway, an inclination toward community partic-
ipation and service, has been discussed in several studies on
recruitment (Daniels et al., 2007; Tolhurst, 2006), but not on
retention. Our results suggest that continued community partici-
pation protects against attrition by facilitating the accumulation of
social capital and the promotion of resilience. However, we did not
investigate how the habit and motivation toward community
participation is created, aside from identifying the importance of
previous experience. Studies focused on community service may
provide a clearer understanding of how students learn to ‘‘get
involved’’ and may offer guidelines for recruiting community-
oriented medical school applicants (Clary & Snyder, 2002).
Regarding place integration, Sobel’s model of sense of place
development was consistent with the stepwise progression of
connection to place we observed in our interviewees (Sobel,1996).
Its simplicity provides a comprehensible model for recruiters,
administrators, and others to foster place integration among new
recruits. It also supports the importance of place-based education
programs that foster a sense of place among new recruits (Sharpe,
Greaney, Lee, & Royce, 2000; Sobel, 2004).
The concepts of self-actualization emerged during transcript
analysis. Several aspects of this pathway’s components (workload,
satisfaction, and diversity of workload) have been cited as moti-
vations for rural practice (Cutchin,1997a; Pathman et al., 2004), but
only anthropologists have previously described self-actualization
as a part of the rural integration process (Lockhart, 1999 p. 168).
This finding strongly supports the need for comprehensive
mentorship and professional development programs for new and
struggling rural physicians, and should be a policy and funding
C. Hancock et al. / Social Science & Medicine 69 (2009) 1368–13761374
Author's personal copy
Spousal/partner influences were very important in physicians’
decisions, consistent with numerous other studies (Kazanjian &
Pagliccia, 1996; Mayo & Mathews, 2006). Integration must be
viewed through the lens of the entire family, and partners must be
included in any effort to facilitate community integration,
connection to place, and resourcefulness. Changes in hospital
policy, workload, and other professional concerns must also be
considered from the partner’s point of view.
Notably, while several interviewees participated in rural
undergraduate, medical school, or residency programs/rotations,
only one felt that this experience was the primary reason he
eventually chose rural practice, a finding consistent with previous
studies (Rabinowitz et al., 2001).
It is also important to note that no clear themes emerged
regarding the differences between the motivations of urban-raised
vs. rural-raised physicians. While more work is needed to clarify
this important distinction, our data suggest that the initial pathway
for was similar for both groups, and consisted of early residential or
recreational exposure to rural environments followed by later
reinforcement through rural education, recreation, or work.
In addition to providing a model for rural physician retention,
these findings also have important application in the explanation of
current rural physician shortages. Medical schools now matriculate
fewer rural-raised students and more wealthy and urban-raised
applicants; 51.5% of students admitted in 2004 had parents who
earned $100,000 or more, up from 23.5% in 1997 (Bowman, 2005).
These students are statistically less likely to have encountered
adversity (Hatch, 2005) or to have engaged in community partici-
pation (Bowman, 2007), and are therefore less likely tochoose rural
practice for these reasons, in addition tothe fact that it is unfamiliar
and often stigmatized by their medical school instructors (COGME,
1998; Talley,1990). By recruiting and supporting more rural, place-
oriented and community-focused physicians and medical students,
important strides can be made toward meeting the needs of rural
and underserved communities and providing a better quality of life
for those who call rural places home.
Physicians’ understandings of the connections between their
upbringing and training are subject to recall bias and manipulation.
The models proposed here are also limited by the difficulty of
articulating internal psychological processes, which are inherently
subjective and variable. In particular, physicians’ accounts of their
place and community integration may have been colored by
a desire to justify their decision to stay. Further work with physi-
cians earlier in the integration process is necessary to better
understand the obstacles they face and the strategies they employ
to overcome them.
An increase in the diversity and number of subjects would have
increased the representativeness of our study. Selection bias may
exist due to the use of snowball sampling in a limited geographic
spectrum of rural physicians and their diverse motivations. The lack
of racial/ethnic diversity is particularly notable, and was a result of
both physician demographics in the study area and the bias of the
Finally, our subjects were also older and more likely to be in a large
private group practice than the typical rural physician.
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