Top Dollar Spent in Medical Talent Search

About 48 percent of Arkansans live in rural communities, but only 9 percent of the state's physicians practice in them.

That's according to the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences' Physician Placement Service. It's a 4-year-old program that exists to recruit doctors from around the state and place them in rural hospitals and clinics.

Heather Mercer, a Little Rock specialist with the service, said PPS had placed doctors in Crossett, Batesville, Decatur, Clinton, Pocahontas, El Dorado and Benton this year so far.

"Our service is almost like a dating and match service," she said. "Each opportunity is different. At Decatur, in particular, they are part of the National Health Service Corps, so they are a designated national health service site. They get loan money available for these positions."

Some rural hospitals and clinics, like some rural banks and schools, price up from the urban hospitals and clinics.

"They offer sign-on bonuses, relocation assistance; some offer loan forgiveness," Mercer said. "Because the need is greater in rural areas, they have to offer better compensation packages than some places."

Most of the recruited doctors sign three-year contracts, Mercer said, but the service usually tries to convince the doctors to stay as long as possible.

"There's the retention factor also," she said. "We don't want to try to talk someone into going into an area they're not wanting to stay. We try to match them with a community and type of practice where they're going to want to stay."

It's easier, Mercer said, when the small town is relatively near a larger one, or at least to a travel hub.

"Like, Decatur is 30 minutes from the airport in northwest Arkansas," she said.

Also in western Arkansas, the 300-employee Mena Regional Health System has a number of positions open, some that have remained so for years.

"The rural market is definitely harder than the urban market to recruit," said CEO Tim Bowen. "We're recruiting family practice and specialty physicians, an occupational therapist, pharmacists. Some of the more specialized positions are difficult to recruit."

Even registered nurses have been hard to find, Bowen said, and the hospital "spends a lot of time, resources and money" searching for talent.

"Sometimes we continue to search and don't get anything," he said. "That occupational therapist we've been looking for for years."

Since Mena isn't officially designated as a medically underserved area, Bowen said, the hospital doesn't qualify for state or federal grants or for loan forgiveness that some rural clinics use as incentives. To be competitive, the hospital does sometimes offer loan forgiveness, but it's siphoned out of the hospital's budget.

"Anything we do is 100 percent us," he said. "It's tough enough as it is, the amount of money we have to fork out."

Bowen, who is profiled as one of this week's "20 in Their 20s," said growing up in Mena helps him discern which people will be more comfortable living in a rural area.

"It's a sales pitch when you bring them in," he said. "We look for people who want to be in a rural environment, who like hunting, fishing, camping, hiking. It doesn't help you to spend all the money, tens of thousands of dollars, recruiting if the people aren't the right fit for the area."

A recruit who spends a year at the hospital and then leaves hurts more than it helps, Bowen said.

"It takes a long time to get their practice up and established," he said. "You need them to be here for a few years just to recoup all the money you spent to get that person here."