Human resources are critical to every rural community’s efforts to improve individual and population health. Human resources include health care professionals, both those in practice and those in training, as well as the population at large in the community.
The recruitment and retention of an adequate supply of properly trained health care professionals are essential for the delivery of quality health care. Although advances in information and communications technology (ICT) hold promise for providing rural residents with remote access to many specialists and services (see Chapter 6), a good deal of health care is best provided locally. The provision of many essential health care services—preventive and primary care, surgical and hospital care, chronic care management, and emergency care—relies to varying degrees on the availability of health care professionals with the appropriate education and skills to provide care competently.
For decades, rural and frontier communities have struggled to attract and retain an adequate supply of the various health care professionals that make up the rural health care team, including family physicians, nurse professionals, physician assistants, emergency care specialists, mental and behavioral health professionals, pharmacists, and dentists. (Appendix C provides detailed information on the availability of various types of health professionals in rural areas.) Some success has been achieved in attracting certain types of health care professionals, while shortages of others have grown worse. Demographic trends make it essential that greater efforts be made to address the health professional workforce needs of rural communities. Many rural communities are experiencing an increase in residents over age 65 as a result of the aging of the population and in-migration of retirees from the “baby boom” generation (see Appendix B). Unless steps are taken soon, there will likely be a widening gap between the available numbers of health care providers and the numbers required to meet the needs of rural populations. The aging of the population and the associated increase in persons with multiple chronic conditions also make it imperative that steps be taken soon to establish better methods of communication and information sharing among the providers in a community.
There is no doubt that the health care professional workforce is important, but so, too, is the broader set of human resources in rural communities. As discussed in Chapter 2, to achieve significant improvements in health, rural communities will need to pursue initiatives aimed at improving both population health and the quality of the personal health care system. Rural residents and other community stakeholders (e.g., social service agencies, educational institutions, faith-based organizations) play a pivotal role at each