A Rural Hand Surgeon
By Joseph Meyerson, MD
I still feel this phrase conjures images of an old, grizzled surgeon with white hair that takes house calls and uses rudimentary instruments and old school methods to get the job done. Even when I say I’m “a rural hand surgeon” I feel that people look me up and down and see a disconnect. Perhaps it is because I am only two years into practice, in a region with no previous permanently established hand surgeon and no other hand surgeon within an hour radius.
I have no particular reason to be a rural doctor. I was raised in a metropolitan area, lived and trained in some of the largest cities in America and never had a burning desire to be the only specialist in town. But, I was lucky enough during residency to connect with mentors with a passion for small town life and discover the immense impact a hand surgeon can have for these communities. It led to rural experiences, research papers on rural topics and eventually a deep enthusiasm for the type of practice, impact and lifestyle a rural hand surgeon can have in small town America.
Clear evidence exists in the literature that patients in rural populations have limitations to healthcare and these limitations result in poor quality of life and poor healthcare outcomes. Improving healthcare access for rural patients remains a challenging endeavor. Limited access to care is a burden. It most commonly manifests as traveling long distances for specialized care located in large urban centers. This impacts rural patients by increasing costs for travel, requires time away from work, adds additional stressors to patients and their families and ultimately, can lead to complex medical care being provided by non-specialized physicians resulting in poorer outcomes and eventually, total avoidance of medical care by rural patients.
I have experienced this firsthand from patients having dealt with chronic issues for years if not decades because of no local hand surgeon. I see these people in the office and routinely bump into them around town. Almost weekly, if not daily, I hear “we [as a community] are so happy you are here.” There is an amazing privilege being a doctor, which I feel is only heightened by being one in a small community.
The strain of delivering medicine in small communities appears to only be intensifying with declining physician numbers paired with the lack of specialists located in rural America.
As I start to find more and more gray hairs and as my rural hand surgery practice continues to develop, I hope to continue to have a positive impact in my rural community and continue to spread the idea of rural hand surgery to our surgical societies.