Dermatologist finds practice perks, balance in rural setting

Mar 15, 2016, 4:00am

Jeffrey M Suchniak, M.D., decided to make a home and career in rural North Carolina. Here, he shares his decision, the pros and cons he has confronted, and he offers advice to colleagues who may consider a similar move.

Jeffrey M Suchniak, M.D.Jeffrey M. Suchniak, M.D., a medical dermatologist at the Boice Willis Clinic in Rocky Mount, N.C., didn’t transition to a rural practice; he decided to stay at a rural practice.

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“After residency, the person who agreed to hire me in South Carolina became injured and could not afford to pay me what we agreed upon, so I scrambled for a job in Rocky Mount, N.C. My original intent was to only stay a few years, until I knew exactly where I wanted to raise my family and what sort of practice I wanted to run. But as time went on, I began to realize that the patient base I had was exactly the patient type I wanted to see,” Dr. Suchniak says.

Today, his practice is nearly 100% general adult and pediatric dermatology, with a focus on treating skin cancer (both as a result of his interest and community need, he says). Dr. Suchniak lived in Rocky Mount for six years; then, moved 50 minutes away to North Raleigh and has been commuting to Rocky Mount for the past nine years.

According to Dr. Suchniak, Rocky Mount, like many of the nation’s rural communities, is comprised of hard-working, salt-of-the-earth people-many of whom are either farmers or grew up on a farm.

“I see a large amount of patients (40 to 45 per day), 70- to 80- and 90-year-olds, who are just riddled with skin cancers and pre-cancers,” he says. “In contrast, the city does not retain a lot of people in their 20s and 30s, which is the age range that tends to use their expendable cash on minor cosmetics.”

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For a dermatologist who enjoys treating skin cancers, a rural location has a seemingly endless supply of patients. And the cases are often interesting and unusual, according to the dermatologist.

NEXT: The pros

 

The pros

According to Dr. Suchniak, pros of practicing in a rural area include:

  • The flexibility to mold your practice the way you want, as competition is usually minimal.

  • Medical dermatology is in demand and can be lucrative, without the added pressure to expand into cosmetics in order to attract or to keep a steady patient base.

  • The patients are varied, with a wide variety of skin conditions.

  • Dermatologists in rural America provide access. Patients sometimes travel for hours to see rural dermatologists because they’re closer than those in big cities.

  • “Another joy is that patients still respect our opinion and very often leave decisions in our hands as they understand that as trained physicians we honestly do know how best to treat them, and not ‘Dr. Google,’” Dr. Suchniak says.

  • Dr. Suchniak says he actually gets to sit down with patients, to educate and explain things to them.

  • “Additionally, in very small communities the very people we treat are frequently people our children go to school with, who we go to church with, and see at the local sports games, which adds a depth to the relationships we make. Commutes to and from work are also generally much easier and relaxing, leaving much more time for your family and hobbies,” he says.

NEXT: The cons and advice

 

The cons

The very aspect of living and practicing in a small town can be challenging, especially when it has been a long day and you just need to pick up a few groceries, Dr. Suchniak says. That’s when Mrs. Jones and three other patients stop you to give you quick updates on their rash and even to seek additional counseling, while you are waiting for your cold cuts.

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“Also, a certain level of familiarity can lead to patients believing that they should be treated differently than other patients, which can be challenging,” he says. “Other issues with rural living are more obvious, such proximity to professional sports, good restaurants, unique amenities and the airport, if you travel a lot or have frequent guests.”

Words of advice

His advice to anyone considering a rural practice?

Do your homework on the economics of the city, before you decide to move. The city or area should be able to support the addition of a dermatologist. After all, you’ll need to stay busy. The local population should be comprised of the age group and economic caliber of patients that you want to serve.

Consider how social a person you are. As a dermatologist in a rural area, you will be seeing your patients everywhere you go in the town, and you will be engaged in friendly conversation constantly, even on days you would prefer not to be, according to Dr. Suchniak.

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Investigate the school system if children are or will be part of your life. Be sure that the public schools are well thought of, or that there are decent private schools to choose from, if necessary.

“We made the move to [North Raleigh] when our kids became elementary school aged because Rocky Mount did not offer the type of religious education institutions we wanted for our children,” he says.