Thanksgiving will soon be here and celebrated joyfully with food, friends, and family in many homes around the country. Football, as well, has become a big part of this tradition on the fourth Thursday of November, an official holiday proclaimed by Abraham Lincoln in 1863. The first Thanksgiving was at Plymouth Plantation in 1621. It is unknown if any rural surgeons were present then. During this holiday, many rural surgeons will be giving thanks for more than food, friends, family, and football.
Twenty-five percent of the population is rural and fewer than 10% of surgeons practice in rural locations. This fact is complicated by the advanced age of the surgeons (~55 y/o) with more than 60% of them planning to retire in less than 10 years. The changes to all aspects of health care today, such as the Affordable Care Act, ACOs, and EMRs, affect the rural health care environment more profoundly and actually promote the deterioration of rural surgical practices. In recent years, rural surgeons have had few reasons to give thanks for the trajectory of their professional situation and fewer yet for the degree of acknowledgment of their challenges by the profession as a whole.
In the past 2 years, thanks to the tireless efforts of a few activists and enlightened leadership in the College, the ACS is now reaching out to rural surgeons, to recognize and to represent them. An important first step was the establishment of the Advisory Council on Rural Surgery, with its pillars for member services, education, quality, advocacy, as well as communication. The Council is chaired by Dr. Tyler Hughes.
Some critics might conclude that this council is just another group of surgeons more concerned about appearances and prominent positions than making an impact on the professional lives of rural surgeons. But such a conclusion would be wrong. Since its inception, the ACRS has worked relentlessly to identify and address the needs of rural surgeons. Efforts of all the pillars have involved education, along with local and national engagement of rural surgeons with emphasis on training, recruitment, and retention. The ACRS has stressed and promoted the value and quality found in rural surgical practices. Members of the Council have generously given their time and enthusiasm to advance these goals.
One of the major roles played by ACRS members has been contributing articles on the realities of a rural practice for the ACS Bulletin’s regular column, “Dispatches from rural surgeons.” Member services chair Dr. Mike Sarap wrote the initial article “The value of chapter membership: The rural surgeon’s perspective,” detailing chapter membership benefits. It concluded that patient care would benefit from a united, networked surgical community. Local ACS chapters can be a foundation of community and professional support among rural surgeons.
Dr. Mark Savarise, advocacy chair, wrote the feature article, “CPT 2012 brings with it new codes and code changes,” that provided invaluable information to rural surgeons, who otherwise would have struggled to secure it. Recently, Dr. Savarise wrote “ACS intervenes to resolve questions about the 96-hour rule” on an issue of great concern to rural surgeons. These efforts to raise awareness, articulate concerns, advocate for change, and inform members about issues are among the most important tasks of the ACRS.
The ACRS also emphasizes continuing education for rural surgeons. Rural surgery symposiums and skills courses over the years attest to that fact and acknowledge the ACRS connection with the Mithoefer Center, Cooperstown, NY, and the Nora Institute in Chicago, IL. ACRS council member, Dr. David Borgstrom, “Rural surgical practice requires a new training model, offers great opportunities” in another Bulletin rural surgery dispatch. The article describes the existing and emerging training programs, ranging from rural surgery rotations and dedicated rural surgery tracks to immersion and fellowship opportunities. The ACS has hosted a series of regional meetings such as the ACS Surgical Healthcare Quality Forum Iowa in June 2014 to engage the surgical community to share ideas on training and workforce needs, maintenance of quality care, and staff retention. In addition, ACS has introduced the Transition to Practice Program in General Surgery, which has been established in several institutions to help residents move into rural surgical practice. This program offers clinical training but also practice management training tailored to rural surgery.
ACRS quality chair, Dr. Don Nakayama, professor and chair at West Virginia University, Morgantown, has collected standards criteria for rural surgery centers of excellence and is composing a verification document for rural surgical practices. This document will assist rural surgeons and be instrumental in maintaining resources and quality in their practices. Once implemented by the ACS, the verification process for rural surgery, like the well-established program for trauma, will enable the highest standards required for the inspiring quality and for better outcomes. This new verification process and its standards give the rural surgeon a basis for the best practice.