Family Doctor Shortage Will Hurt Rural Areas

by Mark Friedman  on Monday, Jun. 9, 2008 12:00 am  

The prognosis for primary care doctors doesn't look good.

While primary care doctors are a good fit for communities of fewer than 10,000 people, few doctors want to practice there.

Of the final year medical residents surveyed by Merritt Hawkins & Associates, a physician recruiting firm in Irving, Texas, none said they wanted to practice in a community with 10,000 people or fewer. And less than 1 percent of the residents said they wanted to go to a town with between 10,000 and 25,000 people.

To add to the small town's misery, the number of primary care doctors is shrinking. One reason could be the long hours and the pay rate. At $145,000, family practice doctors have the lowest average starting salary of any medical doctor, according to a 2007 study by Merritt Hawkins.

About a decade ago, the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences graduated between 40 and 45 students a year who were going to go into family medicine, making it third in the country for the number family medicine graduates, said Chancellor Dr. I. Dodd Wilson.

UAMS is still third in the country for the graduation of family doctors, but now it only graduates about 20 doctors a year.

"The shortage is going to be most acute in the rural [areas]," Wilson said. "And it's going to be a huge problem."

It's already a problem for Pike County.

Pike County Memorial Hospital Administrator Rosemary Fritts has seen how hard it is to get doctors to even look at the hospital in the town of just under 1,700 people.

At the beginning of 2007, the hospital didn't have a doctor.

"We had 3.5 at the end of '06 and two left and one retired," Fritts said.

The doctor who was working part-time, 82-year-old Dr. Hiram Ward, came out of retirement to practice for the first two and a half months of 2007.



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