There are many reasons labor and delivery units close, including high operating costs, declining populations, low Medicaid reimbursement rates, and staffing shortages. Family medicine physicians still provide the majority of labor and delivery care in rural America, but few new doctors recruited to less populated areas offer obstetrics care, partly because they don’t want to be on call 24/7. Now, with rural America hemorrhaging health care providers, the federal government is investing dollars and attention to increase the ranks.

“Obviously the crisis is here,” said Hana Hinkle, executive director of the Rural Training Track Collaborative, which works with more than 70 rural residency training programs. Federal grants have boosted training programs in recent years, Hinkle said.

In July, the Department of Health and Human Services announced a nearly $11 million investment in new rural programs, including family medicine residencies that focus on obstetrical training.

Nationwide, a declining number of primary care doctors — internal and family medicine — has made it difficult for patients to book appointments and, in some cases, find a doctor at all. In rural America, training family medicine doctors in obstetrics can be more daunting because of low government reimbursement and increasing medical liability costs, said Hinkle, who is also assistant dean of Rural Health Professions at the University of Illinois College of Medicine in Rockford.

In the 1980s, about 43 percent of general family physicians who completed their residencies were trained in obstetrics. In 2021, the American Academy of Family Physicians’ annual practice profile survey found that 15 percent of respondents had practiced obstetrics.

Yet family doctors, who also provide the full spectrum of primary care services, are “the backbone of rural deliveries,” said Julie Wood, a doctor and senior vice president of research, science, and health of the public at the AAFP.

In a survey of 216 rural hospitals in 10 states, family practice doctors delivered babies in 67 percent of the hospitals, and at 27 percent of the hospitals they were the only ones who delivered babies. The data counted babies delivered from 2013 to 2017. And, the authors found, if those family physicians hadn’t been there, many patients would have driven an average of 86 miles round-trip for care.

Mark Deutchman, the report’s lead author, said he was “on call for 12 years” when he worked in a town of 2,000 residents in rural Washington. Clarifying that he was exaggerating, Deutchman explained that he was one of just two local doctors who performed cesarean sections. He said the best way to ensure family physicians can bolster obstetric units is to make sure they work as part of a team to prevent burnout, rather than as solo do-it-all doctors of old.

Read the full article about doctors in rural America by Sarah Jane Tribble at The19th.