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Rural Wisconsin clinics braced for primary care doctor shortage

Study shows female doctors earn much less than male doctors
Posted at 6:00 AM, Jul 30, 2019
and last updated 2019-07-30 08:10:16-04

Demand for primary care doctors is growing due to an aging population, but the supply of such physicians is struggling to keep up.

Those findings were part of a report from the Wisconsin Council on Medical Education and Workforce.

It found that demand for primary care doctors will increase by roughly 20% and eventually "outpace projected supply," by 2035.

The same statistics showed rural communities across the state will see the greatest percentage deficits if the projected shortfall comes to fruition.

The report attributes the shortage of primary care physicians, partially, to 40% of the current crop of such doctors retiring by 2035.

At Mercyhealth's clinic in Delavan, Dr. Richard Terry, a Family Medicine Physician, said he thinks being a primary care doctor is often undersold as a career at different medical schools.

Terry believes some medical students are intimidated by pursuing family medicine as a career because it requires them to maintain a general understanding of many different areas of medicine, rather than specializing and becoming an expert in one medical area.

"Reimbursement is also a negative drawback to primary care. About 5% of healthcare costs are reimbursed, spent back, into primary care. Whereas primary care comprises about 55% of office visits," Terry said.

But Terry said maintaining a healthy workforce of primary care doctors around the state is good for public health, and also saves the typical patient money.

He said that's especially true in isolated rural areas, because a primary care physician is typically a patient's entrance-way into the medical world if he or she is ailing with a health problem. Primary care doctors can provide a preliminary diagnosis and/or refer a patient to a specialist.

"Those individuals who see primary care providers have an overall 19% improvement in their longevity and their quality of life," Terry said. "Similarly, individuals who do not have a 33% increased cost to their healthcare."

Kelli Cameron, Mercyhealth's Director of Provider Recruitment and Retention, said the health system continues to actively recruit primary care doctors to both rural areas and its more urban facilities, like in Janesville.

"It's a huge challenge for us," she said of maintaining a steady number of primary care doctors. But that doesn't mean Mercyhealth hasn't been effective in doing so.

To try and proactively prevent the shortage of primary care physicians from impacting patients like Terry's, in Delavan, the health system maintains an accredited residency program in Janesville that boasts an enrollment of up to 21 future doctors in a given year.

Mercyhealth also just kicked off a new residency program in Rockford, Illinois, which once up and running can maintain a yearly enrollment of 75 future, primary care physicians.

"It's important that we continue to add doctors, and not just replace them," Cameron said.

Terry said practicing family medicine in a rural area like Walworth County is a different experience than working in a city like Milwaukee or Chicago. But he said he enjoys it, and hopes other doctors will remain open to working at clinics like his.

"I think the biggest difference about working in a rural community is the development of relationships with patients," Terry said. "I see my patients everywhere, and they see me too. That's a fantastic thing."