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New research finds fewer surgeons working at rural hospitals

A brown brick building entrance with "emergency" in red at the top.
Steve Carmody
Michigan Radio
“We have less surgeons in places that need them than we did a decade ago….and the trends going the wrong way," said Dr. Andrew Ibrahim, the Co-Director of the University of Michigan’s Center for Healthcare Outcomes and Policy.

Rural county hospitals continue to see a decline in the number of surgeons on staff. That's according to a new study, which shows the number of surgeons per 100,000 people decreased between 2010 and 2020 in socially vulnerable counties and remained unchanged in other counties.

Dr. Andrew Ibrahim is the Co-Director of the University of Michigan’s Center for Healthcare Outcomes and Policy. He’s the senior author of a research letter appearing in the journal JAMA-Surgery.

“We found that over the last decade, there are less surgeons in rural communities overall, despite incentive programs existing during that time," said Ibrahim.

Ibrahim said surgeons have been opting for more profitable urban and suburban practices.

Fewer surgeons on staff means people living in rural areas are more likely to need to travel longer distances to undergo routine surgeries. The research letter contends limited access to surgical care has been associated with poor outcomes and will perpetuate health inequities.

The research letter finds new policy solutions are needed to reduce health inequities and to mitigate underlying factors of surgical workforce disparities, including unequal compensation, working conditions, and access to training.

Ibrahim added, on a positive note, recent hospital system mergers have resulted in some growth in the number of routine surgeries performed at rural hospitals.

Steve Carmody has been a reporter for Michigan Public since 2005. Steve previously worked at public radio and television stations in Florida, Oklahoma and Kentucky, and also has extensive experience in commercial broadcasting.
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