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Arizona’s rural hospitals facing severe doctor shortage

September 7, 2019

PHOENIX (AP) — Workers have taken over the lobby of Benson Hospital. The room is getting fresh coats of paint and the carpet is getting tossed in favor of synthetic wood planks.

Renovation is a scenario that’s rare to see in hospitals in rural Arizona. But Benson Hospital avoided being one of nearly 90 rural medical facilities nationwide that has shuttered in recent years, The Arizona Republic reported . Tucson Medical Center last year snatched the hospital back from the brink of closure. The hospital’s board hoped the move would help combat the current physician shortage that’s sweeping even the most remote corners of the state.

The current prognosis for doctors present at hospitals in remote areas of Arizona is not good. A majority will only see that gap widen as doctors retire. Arizona ranks 44th out of 50 states in total active primary-care doctors, according to the Arizona Hospital and Healthcare Association. That draught is worse in rural areas.

Staff members at these hospitals say it’s hard to lure talented new doctors when the facilities themselves look run-down, don’t have the latest medical equipment or are far from a big city.

“You need a special type of physician, one that wants to come in and settle here,” said Greg Was, CEO of White Mountain Regional Medical Center in Springerville. “We don’t have the shopping conveniences or the entertainment that would attract a physician and his family to a larger city, so it makes it a more difficult sell. We have hiking, fishing, a lot of outdoor activities, but to go to Walmart you have to drive an hour to Show Low.”

Dr. David Brower was raised in Phoenix and is one of the few primary-care doctors at Benson Hospital, which serves a population of less than 5,000. Since he started working there last year, he has been deluged with patients who let health issues grow because of the lack of doctor access. It’s been stressful but also deeply fulfilling, he said.

“I’ve had patients where it’s been the case that they haven’t seen the doctor for 20 years,” Brower said. “Now, six, nine months later, them being like, ‘Doc, you changed my life. You absolutely changed my life. I didn’t think I was going to live five years and now I’m hopeful for the future.’ That’s not something you can get from city practice.”

Some lawmakers and health care advocates are looking at home-grown solutions such as urging residents in these communities to pursue medicine.

“It’s a pipeline issue,” said state Sen. Heather Carter, a Phoenix-area Republican and chairwoman of the state Legislature’s Health Committee. She advocates instituting strong science curriculum in elementary schools in rural areas. Also, Arizona must offer more opportunities for medical students to take up residency in these communities.

Carter’s advocacy has contributed to awareness and more funding for new residency slots. The Legislature in May approved a budget that includes for the first time in 10 years funding for residency. Roughly $5.6 million in state and federal dollars has been earmarked for graduate medical education in rural areas in fiscal year 2020. The figure will go up to $11 million in 2010 and $16.7 million in 2022.

“This is a very big deal,” Carter said.

It’s ultimately patients who suffer the most from a lack of physicians. Those who lean on rural hospitals find it more difficult to get follow-up appointments. That can lead to patients going weeks without treatment or medical advice.

“This is this vicious cycle,” said Dr. Kristina Diaz, a family medicine practitioner at Yuma Regional Medical Center. “And I worry that it’s going to get worse as more people start retiring, if we don’t start replacing the workforce.”

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Information from: The Arizona Republic, http://www.azcentral.com

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