Physician Shortage Worries Rural Communities But Gets Little Attention In Health Bills

Garfield Memorial Hospital in Pomeroy, Wash., has been struggling to make ends meet for years – through patient revenues and property taxes that helped cover a $70,000 roof repair – the Seattle Times reports. Many rural hospitals face similar problems, and in the case of Pomeroy, if the hospital closed, residents would have to travel miles to find other choices. Hospital administrators and residents are wary of federal efforts to reform health care that could include changes to Medicare payments. "If Medicare pays us less for treating people, we'll be down the tubes," one nurse said.

The Times also notes: "there's a bit of rejoicing about the arrival of the town's newest resident. After two years of searching, Pomeroy has a local doctor again" (Stucke, 10/11).

Meanwhile, "Even as Congress moves to expand health insurance coverage to millions of Americans, it's doing little to ensure there will be enough primary care doctors to meet the expected surge in demand for treatment, experts say," Kaiser Health News reports. One estimate suggests the country will be short around 40,000 family doctors within the next 10 years. Residency programs have flat-lined for years after 1997 federal budget cuts, and a plan to expand the number of U.S. residents sank in Congress because it would have cost $10 billion over a decade. Some experts say that's a small price. "We can't bend the cost curve without increasing primary care providers," said Russell Robertson, chairman of the Council on Graduate Medical Education (Galewitz, 10/12).

States have also struggled with medical education issues. "[T]he class size at the University of Colorado Denver School of Medicine has increased by just four students in the past four years — partly because the school fluctuates between dead-last and second-to-last in state funding among public medical schools (nationwide)," the Denver Post reports. That's during a time when the Association of American Medical Colleges called for a 30 percent increase in the number of medical student slots. Meanwhile, over the last decade, osteopathic medical education has surged, including in Colorado. The discipline trains physicians to approach medicine with "a personal, holistic touch" (Brown, 10/11).

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