Rural Medicine: In Critical Condition Part I

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Updated: Fri, 23 May 2014 10:05:53 CST

Rural medicine in Nebraska is in critical condition. The number of doctors in rural areas is shrinking. But it's not just a problem here, the issue spans across the country. 

Over 20 percent of the U.S. population lives in rural areas, but, only 9 percent of the nation's physicians practice there. Experts predict that the shortage is only going to get worse.

Health care in rural Nebraska isn't terminal, but it's on life support.

"You've got declining populations of young people in rural areas, the only growth is there are more people who need more care," said Dr. Jeff Harrison, the assistant dean of admissions at UNMC.

According to the American journal of preventative medicine, people who lived in metropolitan areas between 2005 and 2009 lived about 3 years longer than those living in rural areas,

"It's critical right now and its likely to get more critical as we move forward as a number of the more senior practitioners from physicians to nurses to physical therapists to dentists reach retirement age," said Dr. Mike Sitorius, Chairman of Family Medicine at UNMC.

Jeff Harrison and Mike Sitorius are both family medicine doctors at the university of Nebraska medical center. They're both fighting to end the shortage of doctors in rural Nebraska.

"The one thing we know from most of our survey data of current practitioners is it's going to get worse in the next 3-5 years," said Dr. Harrison.

Jim Stimpson, director of UNMC's Center for Health Policy has found that in the past 10 years the number of young rural primary care physicians has declined significantly.

"Data suggests that the supply of physicians in Nebraska is 30% lower than has been previously reported, so I think if people feel like there was a shortage before we think it might be much worse than people might have previously thought," said Dr. Stimpson.

For the past 20 years UNMC has been working to combat the doctor shortage crisis. They've introduced the rural health opportunities program as part of the cure. It recruits high school seniors from rural communities. Students can get their undergrad from Wayne State, Chadron, or UNK and as long as their grades are up to par, they're guaranteed admission into UNMC's program.

"They're gonna go back to if not the community they came from similar size communities because that's where their family is that's where their friends are and that's culturally where they're comfortable," said Dr. Harrison.

UNMC has several other similar programs that attract young medical professionals to under served areas. And it's paying off. UNMC is ranked 6th in the nation in primary care, and 10th in rural health initiatives.

"I think that's a testimony to the commitment of UNMC, to the state of Nebraska and to our collaboration and cooperation with people throughout the state of Nebraska and trying to train our folks to be the best rural practitioners that they can be," said Dr. Sitorius.

The school's RHOP program also grants students a tuition waiver for their undergraduate education, easing some of the financial burden that comes along with studying medicine.