Why is Humboldt short of doctors? Healthcare in High Demand: Doctors Wanted, Pt. 1

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Eureka, Ca., (KIEM)- It’s no secret that booking an appointment with a primary care doctor can be difficult in Humboldt County. Wait times in the ER almost always seem lengthy and even hospital employees are effected.

(Left) David Southerland, Chief Executive St. Joseph Health; (Right) Dr. William Parks, Chief Medical Officer at St. Joseph Health

“Some of our own employees that come here to work have trouble getting in to see a primary care physician.” David Southerland, the Chief Executive of St. Joseph Health Explains. This is why many American med school students instead search around for accredited med schools in the Carribean so they can complete their medical education and training, to then come back to America in hopes to be employed.

But it’s not just a problem in Humboldt County. “All over the country right now there is a shortage of doctors.” Herrmann Spetzler, the CEO of Open Door Community Health Centers Explains.

“Over the last 10 years prior to 2016 probably 50-75 physicians have left the area.” Dr. William Parks, the chief medical officer at St. Joseph Health says. “So practices that once had two or three specialists or two or three primary care in the same office are now down to one. The problem with not being able to get in to primary care physicians is that when you’re really sick and you really need a doctor there’s no other place to go except the Emergency Room, and so this burdens the hospital by seeing patients who aren’t as acutely sick as those who really require emergency care.”

Dr. Parks also says the backlog in the emergency room is only part of the problem. “Some of the specialists end up doing primary care, and so you have your surgeons treating diabetics or congestive heart failure. The surgeon can’t practice his or her trade as well by being burdened with the additional time to take care of primary care problems with the patients.”

But what’s causing this disappearance of doctors? Spetzler says part of the local problem is timing. “About 40 years ago a group of really exceptionally good medical providers first came to the North Coast, and established their practices here, and have been providing excellent care to the folks living on the North Coast during all that time, so many came at the same time that there’s this layer of age that all retired at the same time. So that exacerbated the situation somewhat.”

Nationally healthcare is in a “tremendous transition” according to Southerland. The model is changing, because young doctors want to be employed, not employers.

“Traditional practice in rural America was a doctor coming to a community, hanging their shingle maybe finding a partner, and then being sort of an entrepreneurial doctor, running an office, having an office manager, and having a small business that happened to be medicine.” Spetzler says.

Why the sudden change? What separates millennial doctors from their predecessors? Spetzler has a hypothesis, “Back 40 years ago doctors came out of medical school with very little or no debt. Today our young docs are coming out with anywhere from $175,000 to over $500,000 worth of debt. Which is considerable. Most of them are not interested in being small business people along with being a physician.” He says.

The task of recruiting and employing newly minted doctors falls heavily on the shoulders of hospital organizations and established clinics. It’s a job Spetzler and Southerland are say they’re up for.

Join us Tuesday night on News Channel 3 for part two of “Healthcare in High Demand: Doctors Wanted” a closer look at how healthcare providers are being recruited.