General surgeons form a crucial component of the medical workforce in rural areas of the United States. Any decline in their numbers could have profound effects on access to adequate health care in such areas.
We hypothesize that the rural areas of the United States are relatively undersupplied with general surgeons.
Design and Setting
The American Medical Association’s Physician Masterfile was used to identify all clinically active general surgeons as well as their locations and characteristics. Their geographic distribution was examined using the ZIP code version of the Rural-Urban Commuting Areas. Surgeons were classified as practicing in urban areas, large rural areas, or small/isolated rural areas.
There are currently 17 243 general surgeons practicing in the United States. Nationally, the number of general surgeons per population of 100 000 varies from 6.53 in urban areas to 7.71 in large rural areas and 4.67 in small/isolated rural areas. Only 10.6% of the nation’s general surgeons are female. Wide variations in numbers of general surgeons were found between and within individual states. General surgeons in the smallest rural areas are more likely than those in urban areas to be male (92.7% vs 88.3%, P<.001), 50 years of age or older (51.6% vs 42.1%, P<.001), or international medical graduates (25.2% vs 20.1%, P<.001).
The overall size of the rural general surgical workforce has remained static over the last decade, but its demographic characteristics suggest that numbers will decline. Many rural residents have limited access to surgical services. Steps to reverse this trend are needed to preserve the viability of health care in many parts of rural America.