Doctor shortage 'silent crisis'

From Staff Reports
Cumberland Times-News

In light of a new study that shows Maryland has a growing shortage of doctors in clinical practice, Western Maryland Health System officials say the local situation is better than the region as a whole.

WMHS has added 23 new physicians to the community during the past year.

“Although our recruitment efforts have been successful, the recruitment process has become increasingly more difficult,” said Dr. James Raver, senior vice president for medical affairs at WMHS.

“This study documents the growing physician shortage in Maryland. However, there are national shortages for primary-care and many other physician specialties and we compete with hospitals across the country to fill the needs we have.”

The study conducted for the Maryland Hospital Association, and co-sponsored by MedChi, the Maryland State Medical Society, found that overall, Maryland is 16 percent below the national average for the number of physicians in clinical practice. The most severe problems occur in rural parts of the state and will worsen by 2015, based on the study’s findings.

“It is a silent crisis that grows in intensity every day,” Maryland Hospital Association President Cal Pierson said. “If this shortage is not addressed promptly, patient care and access to care will suffer.”

The widest statewide gaps are in primary care, emergency medicine, anesthesiology, hematology/oncology, thoracic surgery and vascular surgery, psychiatry and dermatology. The study also finds Maryland has only a borderline supply of orthopedic surgeons.

The situation in Southern Maryland, Western Maryland and the Eastern Shore is the most alarming. All three regions fall significantly below national levels in currently practicing physicians. Western Maryland has critical shortages in 20 of the 30 physician categories.

The western region includes Allegany, Garrett, Washington and Frederick counties.

“We are fortunate that all of these 30 medical specialties are represented on the WMHS medical staff,” Raver said. “In some specialties, though, we are in a similar position as other hospitals in Maryland by not having an adequate number of physicians to provide the level of coverage needed. For example, emergency call coverage may not always be available in all physician specialties or patients may have to wait longer when scheduling routine appointments.”

WMHS has added physician assistants and nurse practitioners to provide coverage in key areas such as emergency and cardiac care. It also has offset the cost of securing physicians to provide temporary coverage when a critical need arises.

The study calls for a number of legislative remedies, including higher physician fees so Maryland is competitive nationally, and a state loan forgiveness program that will draw young physicians to regions most in need.

“The quality of life in Western Maryland is attractive to physicians,” adds Raver, “but the realities of the practice environment in Maryland often hamper our recruitment efforts.”

Unless state leaders take steps to address this situation, Pierson said, patients soon may not be able to find the physicians they need, particularly in regions where there are a dwindling number of medical specialists.

MedChi Executive Director Dr. Martin Wasserman wants to see incentives developed to encourage physicians to see Maryland as “physician-friendly” and to encourage them to practice in the state’s rural areas and specialty areas with the greatest shortages. “We can’t afford to wait. We must retain our current physicians and residents in training and recruit new physicians to practice in our state,” he said.

WMHS has the added advantage of its new medical center under construction on Willowbrook Road. “Currently, the prospect of working in a brand new hospital has been a great recruiting tool for us, but these proposed additional measures are part of a much-needed, long-term solution,” Raver said.
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