We’ve all heard the statistics about the growing need for trained healthcare professionals, especially nurses, within our society. Federal estimates indicate that not nearly enough people are entering the field to meet the projected healthcare needs of the coming decades.

Although the overall need is concerning, the issue is particularly acute in rural communities. Here, staffing shortages have caused the closure of entire wards of hospitals, forcing rural community members to travel great distances to seek healthcare treatment.

Rural nurses’ challenges can be profound, especially within the current system. Fortunately, new technologies are being incorporated to relieve some stresses and provide greater opportunities. Becoming a rural nurse comes with its real challenges, but these tech advancements could help make it a more rewarding decision.

Challenges Facing Rural Hospitals

Rural communities have experienced a sharp decline in economic output over the years. Over the past few decades, demographic trends in the United States have indicated that people are leaving rural areas and heading for the city in droves. The primary reason for this is the pursuit of better economic opportunities.

Healthcare services have not been excluded from this mass exodus from rural communities. Today, workforce shortages are common in rural hospitals , and many nurses choose to live and work in cities where higher pay and more amenities are available. This ultimately means that remaining rural nurses are spread thin and asked to treat a greater variety of ailments. Because rural communities are often lower-income, salaries are also lower for healthcare providers.

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All of this has a significant impact on community members, too. Much research indicates that rural communities have more chronic conditions and poorer health outcomes. This can be attributed to several reasons, including fewer opportunities for local specialized care and economic factors that play into the ability to seek the right treatment elsewhere.

Many rural hospitals’ patient data are also more prone to cyberattacks. Although many hospitals should stay vigilant against these attacks through cybersecurity measures, it’s not unusual for nurses to fall prey to “security fatigue” in response to these measures. This term encapsulates the exhaustion that may come from overwhelming staff with too many security measures.

Tech-Based Solutions

Fortunately, technological advancements are alleviating some issues associated with obtaining necessary healthcare in a rural setting. The most important of these advancements is within the realm of telehealth. Telehealth services allow rural residents to “see” specialists and other healthcare providers from the comfort of their own homes or their local clinic.

Initial consultation appointments, examinations, post-treatment follow-up appointments, and rehab can be conducted online. All of which can save multiple trips to an urban center and thousands of dollars. Many health conditions can be treated via telehealth services, including things like:

  • Skin conditions;
  • Prescriptions and associated refills;
  • Allergy assessments;
  • Asthma treatments;
  • Mental health examinations and therapy;
  • Follow-up visits for hearing and visual healthcare;
  • Physical therapy and other forms of rehab;
  • Diabetes management and prevention;
  • Some forms of addiction treatment.

Rural nurses have a profound ability to play a critical role in their community healthcare as telemedicine becomes more mainstream. For one, nurses can be essential resources for urban doctors following up with their rural patients. These nurses can help reinforce treatment recommendations and ensure that patients fully understand the information communicated online.

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As a rural community member, locals will trust you more than the urban doctors they speak with online. Rural communities are often very tight-knit, and the nurses within them are valued and trusted resources. This puts all rural nurses at the forefront of encouraging telehealth adoption and could make a profound difference in community healthcare outcomes.

Things to Consider Before Moving

Deciding to become a nurse in a rural area can be a challenging one. You may have wanted to return to your small town and make a difference in your local community, or you may be considering a rural lifestyle for yourself and your family. There are significant challenges working in a rural healthcare setting, but also several profound benefits and rewarding experiences.

One thing to consider is that many federal and state programs offer incentives for trained professionals to bring their skills to live and work in rural settings. For instance, some areas provide financial bonuses comparable to urban salaries to help bring healthcare professionals in. Others offer student loan forgiveness programs where nurses work for many years in a rural setting, and all of their loans are forgiven.

In some cases, a greater degree of autonomy is provided to rural nurses and other healthcare providers. Many nurse practitioners in rural settings have reported that they feel more able to practice to the full legal scope of their training. In contrast, in more urban settings, many have reported feeling they are still required to clear every decision with a doctor. Numerous bills in Congress seek to help loosen some restrictions that will make nurses more capable of providing services without direct doctor supervision.

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It’s up to you to decide if the benefits of rural healthcare outweigh the challenges. If you choose to move, you must take extra time to account for these challenges.

Amanda Winstead
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