Study: No cure in sight for long-term shortage of doctors in region, nation

By Enrique Rangel

AUSTIN – For years, dozens of rural West Texas counties have not only seen their populations shrink but have suffered critical shortages of doctors and nurses.

Some, like Kent County, haven’t even had a physician in more than half a century.

And it looks like the shortage will get worse in the foreseeable future – not just in West Texas but across the nation.

A study by the National Association of Community Health Centers released Monday concluded that 56 million Americans, nearly a fifth of the U.S. population, do not have a regular doctor because they live in areas without one.

“They are the medically disenfranchised,” said Dan Hawkins, senior vice president at the Washington-based organization. “Many of them go to the ER when they need medical care because they don’t have a primary care provider.”

The overuse of emergency rooms costs the U.S. an estimated $18 billion a year, Hawkins estimated.

Moreover, as the medical communities in the Panhandle and the South Plains have been predicting for some time, what makes the issue more critical is the retirement of the baby boom generation, Hawkins said.

The report said that by 2015, Texas will have a shortage of 4,500 doctors. It recommends that about 2,000 physicians be hired in the next seven years and the rest in subsequent years until medical schools graduate enough medical students to meet the demand.

Dr. Lil Anderson of Billings, Mont., chairwoman of the association’s board, said the solution is for medical schools and even state governments to give medical school students incentives to serve in those places.

Among the solutions Anderson and her colleagues propose is helping students with school costs.

When a student graduates with more than $100,000 in debt, he or she is likely to become a specialist, with better pay, in order to pay off loans, Anderson added. Doctors who become specialists typically go to work in large urban hospitals, where if there is a physician shortage, it’s not as critical as in the rural areas.

Jose Camacho, executive director of the association’s chapter in Texas, said the greatest need is in rural areas like the Panhandle and the South Plains.

That’s because 27 counties in the region do not have a single physician, and Camacho said the Panhandle-South Plains region needs at least 30 more physicians in order to be removed from the medically underserved list.

The standard definition for a medically underserved area is one physician for every 3,500 residents.

For legislators like Rep. Joe Heflin, D-Crosbyton, whose 16-county district has five counties without a doctor, getting even one is a major accomplishment.

“It’s not easy to get a doctor to this area,” Heflin said.

In fact, Crosbyton recently lost a doctor and an assistant physician. The town is now down to one medical provider, Heflin said.

Heflin, a member of the House Agriculture and Livestock Committee, which has been looking into ways to revitalize rural counties, said he welcomed the association’s report.

“This should be one of our legislative priorities, particularly in the rural areas where the doctor shortage is more severe,” Heflin said.

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