Is there a doctor in town?

In April, the Wisconsin State Journal reported on the struggle faced by a hospital that needed a doctor. Moundview Memorial Hospital in Friendship - a community of 700 people about 40 miles from Tomah - tried to hire a new doctor. They received resumes from only three doctors. One didn’t return their call and the other two could not start for a year.

When no new doctor could be found, the hospital decided to keep their medical director even through he was convicted of a felony and - by federal law - could not see Medicare patients. 

Finding a family doctor is not easy. The federal Department of Health and Human Services predicts a shortage of 16,000 primary care doctors nation-wide. In Wisconsin the Office of Rural Health has 174 primary care doctor job openings and two-thirds are in rural areas.

Local hospitals and clinics shared with me concerns about many health profession shortages - dentists, mental health workers, pharmacists, emergency workers and primary care physicians. And ‘rural’ is not limited to towns of 2,500 or less. Those facing difficulties include facilities in Eau Claire and La Crosse.

The Rural Wisconsin Health Cooperative says shortages in nursing, general surgery and even community hospitals are not far behind.

And just when baby-boomers are reaching the age when many require more care, health care providers are in short supply.

A group of people from Western Wisconsin are trying to make a difference.

Last week I was honored to speak at the official opening of the Health Science Academy in Whitehall. Health providers from around our area teamed up with educators to create options for students who want to work in health care. I provided motivation and encouragement for the new class of high school students and their mentors.

In preparing for the speech, I learned of research that showed a young person attending medical school from a rural area was more likely to return and practice in a rural area. A focus on “Growing our own” - the theme of the Health Science Academy - is very important because only 5% of recent medical school graduates want to practice in rural areas.

One problem new doctors face is the incredible debt they take on to finish medical school. The American Medical Association reports the average debt of a newly minted doctor is $156,000. Starting salaries for rural family medicine physicians are lower than those who work in urban areas even though they work just as hard.

Help paying off loans is a way to bring doctors and other health professionals to rural Wisconsin. There are several loan assistance programs - from the National Health Service Corp to state programs offered through the UW Medical School. Qualifying health professionals must commit to working for a few years in a ‘health profession shortage area’ - which includes most rural areas of the state. Earlier this year, I co-authored a bill to help bring in federal funds to match our state dollars so we could infuse a million new dollars into this program.

Most doctors and nurses are trained in big cities. And they tend to stay there. Recently Wisconsin began an Academy for Rural Medicine devoted to increasing the number of doctors in rural areas by having medical students work in rural hospitals and clinics.

I had the privilege of meeting one of these students. She was a third year medical student based in La Crosse and doing a rotation in Whitehall. “I will spend my whole third year of medical school in the La Crosse area,” she told me. “And I am very excited about this opportunity.”

Several of the high school students in Whitehall shared with me their motivation for enrolling in the Health Science Academy. Many had family members who needed care and they wanted to be sure quality care was available regardless of where their loved ones lived.

One young woman was concerned about her aging family members. “I want to make sure there’s someone to take care of my grandparents. And the care is just as good as in a big city.”

If the new group of Health Science Academy students is successful, we may indeed get our own “homegrown” doctor in town.