Small Communities Struggle To Fill Demand for Physicians

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The medical community in the United States is struggling to fill a shortage of physicians in many areas. And it's a problem that's also apparent in small communities in NorthCentral Wisconsin.

Michael A. Umland, MD, is a 3rd year Family Practice Resident at the Wausau Family Medicine Clinic. He’s focusing on family medicine and knows he wants to work in a smaller community. But he’s one of a declining number, according to a new report from the Government Accountability Office. The demand for primary care physicians, especially in rural communities, is far outpacing supply. "I think throughout the nation, I would probably say I had 800 to 1000 offers to practice in rural communities and other cities throughout the U.S., said Umland."

One major reason rural areas are struggling to bring in new doctors is they don't offer the salaries offered to those who specialize in certain fields and work in large cities. And with many students graduating with hundreds of thousands of dollars of debt, salary makes a big difference. "If they come out with that kind of debt, they're looking at reimbursement that will help me pay off that debt”, said Kevin O’Connell, MD, Program Director at Wausau Family Medicine. “And we know there's a difference in the amount of reimbursement."

O’Connell says one of the best ways to keep physicians in smaller and rural communities is by having them do their residencies at smaller clinics like the one in Wausau. "We bring physicians in, they do their residency here, and continue to practice here”, said O’Connell. “That was the whole reason we wanted to have a residency program in a smaller community."

Out of the 140 residents who have graduated from the Wausau Family Medicine Clinic, O’Connell says about 60% are working in rural areas. But even the success their program's seen isn't common, and O’Connell says more needs to be done. "At the current rate, if we do everything we're currently doing we will not fill the needs that we have projected for the next 10 to 15 years, we will fall behind”, O’Connell said. “So we need to do something different."

Demand for physicians is expected to continue to rise, as baby-boomers begin to require more medical care, and many baby-boomer doctors reach retirement age.