On Rural Doctoring: The Generalist’s Mind

This is the second part of a series that first appeared on the blog Rural Doctoring,
where Theresa Chan writes about her experience working as a family
physician and hospitalist in a rural community in Northern California. Chan
moved from San Francisco to try out rural life.

When I think of rural doctors, I think of family practice. Part of this is training bias, because I am a family doctor, but this bias is supported by surveys which demonstrate that a significant number of rural communities would be medically underserved if it were not for the presence of family physicians.

In this post series, I will emphasize the family practice model of medical training as an approach to preparation for rural practice. I do not mean to imply that other primary care specialties–such as internal medicine, pediatrics or OB/GYN–have no place in rural communities. Quite the opposite, in fact. My job in rural California would be much more difficult if I did not have the support of the other primary care specialties. I hope this post series will be useful to medical students and residents who are training in those specialties as well, even if the content tends to veer towards family practice. I will argue that it is the generalist’s mind, rather than the specialty, which will suit a doctor for rural practice.

Consider three rural scenarios:

1. Rural county (population density 35 people per square mile) with one large hospital and three smaller hospitals, a community health care network, and most medical/surgical specialties represented. However, there is no neurosurgery, neonatology, or perinatology available in the county.

2. Rural town located with one local hospital but limited medical services available (OB, general surgery, general inpatient medicine). Most specialty care requires travel over difficult roads to the county seat twenty miles away; some specialty care (including perinatology, cardiology and nephrology) requires travel to the next county south.

3. Extremely remote rural county (population density 0.4 people per square mile). Basic hospital services only; patients requiring ICU care or surgical services are airlifted to the nearest full service hospital. No permanent medical staff in the usual sense; physicians do one-month blocks of time to staff hospital ER/OR/L&D and attached clinic.

Obviously, the remoteness of a community and the availability of medical services varies greatly in rural settings. The kind of medicine a doctor practices will vary as well. Family doctors are particularly well-trained to adapt to different practice scenarios. A popular definition of the specialty’s scope is an ability to diagnose and treat 90 percent of all patient problems. This includes ordinary childhood illnesses, chronic diseases of the very old, acute injuries, normal pregnancies, and common conditions requiring hospitalization. Some medical students worry that the specialty is too broad, that you need to be an internist, pediatrician, and obstetrician all in one. Family physicians would disagree. Instead of rolling three specialties into one, family practice trains doctors to master the most common issues and diseases across a spectrum of specialties.

Although family doctors will refer patients with very complicated medical conditions to consultants, if specialty care is not easily available, they might absorb complicated care into their scope of practice. Scenario No. 1 describes rural California pretty well. Because there is no perinatology available within 180 miles of our prenatal practice manages gestational diabetes and autoimmune illnesses such as multiple sclerosis and Crohn’s disease during pregnancy.

We rely on online references such as UpToDate and telephone consultations with UCSF perinatologists to guide us, but formal referrals are not pursued if the patient is doing well. This is very different from my residency experience in which all high-risk women went to perinatology clinic. Similarly, in my hospitalist job, both family doctors and internists provide critical care, whereas in a larger hospital an ICU might be staffed with intensivists. Our community also supports family physicians who have limited surgical privileges for C-sections, D&Cs and postpartum tubal ligations. In very remote communities, such as Scenario No. 3, family doctors might also obtain appendectomy privileges as well, although this is less common.

Ultimately, the success of family practice in adapting to the wide variety of rural settings lies within its generalist approach. We begin with a wide base of common illnesses across the lifespan, and this serves as a base from which to develop competence in more specialized topics. The generalist education prepares us to meet problems we’ve never seen before, research them, seek help when necessary, or initiate a work-up on our own. This is an approach which has served me extremely well during my first years, when I had to begin practicing in a community very different from the one I knew during residency.

This generalist mind-set is not unique to family doctors, of course. Our local pediatricians are more generalist in their practice than their urban counterparts, since neonatology falls onto their shoulders rather than to the subspecialists. Our most beloved pediatrician also assists surgeries, and when he worked in remote Alaska, was known to catch a few babies here and there as well. He remembers this experience fondly.

Components of the generalist mind-set:

* An understanding that no problem is inaccessible to the generalist.* An independent cast of thought, an ability to keep your own counsel.* An organized approach to clinical problems–i.e., developing differential diagnoses, ordering selective tests to narrow the differential, anticipating a management plan based on test results and patient needs/resources.* An intellectual curiosity that overpowers inertia. Investigating the unknown takes time and energy.* An ability to set a reasonable threshold for consultation, i.e. avoiding knee-jerk consultations but not delaying appropriate referral.* A tolerance for uncertainty. Complex clinical problems rarely have immediate or simple solutions, and when they do, the process of finding them is not simple. You have to be comfortable with the fact that you don’t know how things are going to turn out.

The point of all this discussion is this: The generalist mind is the single most important element in a rural doctor’s education. Anyone interested in working in a rural community — whether well-staffed as in Scenario No. 1 or very remote such as Scenario No. 3 — will be well advised to remember to think like a generalist as they go through their training.

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3 replies »

  1. You will be surprised. Some remote rural clinics and hospitals do have EMR and use clinical decision supports services. I was working in one of those as a Family nurse practitioner and I know it exists and helps us a lot. It is true what Dr. Chan has said.

    I have learned independently how to treat my patients with all sorts of diseases with the help of internet, other veterans in Medicine, phone calls, and we had no choice to be efficient since the other major hospitals were about 2-6 hours away via car. Yes, we had air flight for emergencies – and this has helped the population. We sure need more financial helps to assist the oncoming of the generalist doctors. Thanks for the support!!!

  2. I would be fascinated to hear more about how rural docs are utilizing clinical decision supports services (CDSS). Since they are unlikely to have an EMR with an embedded CDSS, they are liked to rely on others methods include the traditional telephone call to supporting specialist or utilizing an online website (UpToDate which keeps a pretty low profile in general but seems to have a ridiculous amount of awareness/utilization from a range of docs I have talked).

  3. Fantastic post, Theresa. As most policy wonks live and work in urban environments, our understanding of rural medicine is poor. Thanks for shedding some light on your practice.
    In the context of ongoing discussions about provider labor supply and physician payment, it’s worth pointing out how intellectually demanding your job is. There is no area of human disease that lies outside your specialty, and your professional learning curve never levels off. This is completely different from the subspecialist or procedurist career, where there’s a certain security in having very deep but very narrow knowledge…if you’re a specialist and you don’t know something, you just refer outside your specialty. Intellectually, this is pretty easy.
    So when we think about whether physicians might be overtrained for their eventual jobs and about the optimal role of allied health professionals, it seems likely that the best place to try out a more limited training approach is in the procedural fields (e.g., train technicians straight out of high school to do colonoscopies and nothing else). The worst place to try a more limited training approach is in rural primary care…but sadly, I think this is what many policy makers envision as interest in primary care careers by highly-trained U.S. medical graduates falls off the cliff (especially for family practice!).