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UW Health hopes to curb rural Wisconsin's OBGYN shortage

Posted at 11:36 AM, Sep 22, 2021
and last updated 2021-09-22 12:41:54-04

MADISON — A program being led out of UW-Health in Madison is making sure that every pregnant woman in rural Wisconsin has access to the health care that they need within a safe distance.

"There aren't enough options," said Jessie Mabie, a mother of three who lives in Manitowish Waters, Wisconsin. "You get one choice of hospital that has any type of OBGYN care, unless you drive more than an hour."

That's why Mabie chose to use a midwife for the birth of her kids, because she said the quality of care near her rural home wasn't ideal. But, she knew using a midwifery was risky, too, since the midwife's office was an hour and a half away.

"I had to take into consideration that if my labor went fast, she would miss my birth," said Mabie.

This lack of access to women's health care is the reality all across Wisconsin. According to UW-Health, 27 of 72 counties in the state have no OBGYN provider. In the last 25 years, birthing units in rural areas went from 40% to 20%.

"You might say 40% isn’t ideal to begin with, but certainly decreasing by half over 20 years is not the direction we want to go," said Dr. Ryan Spencer, Residency Program Director for Obstetrics and Genecology at UW-Health. He calls the gap in access to healthcare that women in rural Wisconsin face is alarming.

"What we see in OBGYN is women who live in rural communities more likely to die around the time of childbirth, babies born in rural communities more likely to die around the time of childbirth," said Dr. Spencer.

Now he's leading a program that could offer a solution. UW-Health now places resident doctors in rural communities to create a pipeline of physicians who prefer the non-urban setting.

"We know that physicians are more likely to stay in practice in places near where they train or in settings like those that they train in," said Dr. Spencer.

Dr. Maddy Whetterhahn is a third-year resident, training in a community similar to the one she grew up in.

"Part of my inspiration for wanting to go back is my dad, who is a family medicine doctor in way northern New York. And, seeing the impact that he had on his community and seeing how his patients interact with him - whether it's at a grocery store or a restaurant or a school meeting - all of that has played into why I want to do that," she said.

Whetterhahn's desire to be an OBGYN in rural America stems deep from a desire to provide access to quality care for women who need it now.

"For some people who are working, sometimes more than one job, being able to take off the time not only to have the appointment but to drive there and back again can be a very high barrier to entry," she said.

It's that access that moms like Jessie Mabie hope to see more of as they now raise the next generation of rural women.

"General care, I feel like should be able to be in a clinic where you don't have to drive an hour and a half to get to it," said Mabie.

Doctor Spencer said that the program in Madison is already inspiring programs at universities nationwide. A similar program just started at the University of Iowa. A possible solution to a nationwide shortage to the rural shortage of OBGYNs.

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