The Surgical and Anesthesia Workforce and Provision of Surgical Services in Rural Communities

A Mixed-Methods Examination

Published in: The Journal of Rural Health (2020). doi: 10.1111/jrh.12417

Posted on RAND.org on November 24, 2020

by Catherine C. Cohen, Matthew D. Baird, Nirabh Koirala, Ryan Kandrack, Grant R. Martsolf

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Purpose

Rural-urban disparities in the surgical and anesthesia workforce exist. This mixed-methods study describes the distribution of the surgical and anesthesia workforce and qualitatively explores how such workforce and other factors influence rural hospitals' provision of surgical services.

Methods

We calculated provider counts by county from the Area Health Resource File. Using American Hospital Association survey data, we sampled rural hospitals, stratified by critical access status and state policies. We conducted qualitative semistructured interviews with administrators at 16 hospitals and performed directed content analysis of factors influencing surgical services provision at rural hospitals.

Findings

Within rural counties, 55.1% of counties had no surgeon, 81.2% had no anesthesiologist, and 58.1% had no Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetist (CRNA). Administrators reported that rural hospitals struggled to provide many surgical services given lack of subspecialty surgeons and adequate postsurgical care. Rural hospitals likely struggle to generate volumes necessary to support safe and profitable subspecialty surgery programs. Anesthesia services were not reported as a current limitation given that CRNAs in particular had strong, diverse skills sets and many hospitals allowed high CRNA autonomy. However, meeting anesthesia needs for emergency surgeries and 24-hour obstetrics posed significant challenges.

Conclusions

While rural hospitals reported meeting community needs for elective and noncomplex surgeries, rural hospitals continued to face significant challenges providing subspecialty surgeries, emergency surgeries, and 24-hour obstetrical services.

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