Doctor shortage could impact rural areas in Wisconsin - WKOW 27: Madison, WI Breaking News, Weather and Sports

Doctor shortage could impact rural areas in Wisconsin

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JANESVILLE (WKOW) -- Wisconsin's population is aging and growing faster than our medical schools can train doctors to care for us all. 

The Wisconsin Council on Medical Education & Workforce (WCMEW) released a report Tuesday that predicts by 2035, we could be 4,000 doctors short of what's really needed in the state. An overall population increase of 12 percent is expected, but the 65 and up population will go up by 69 percent. Experts say because the older population uses medical services three and a half times more often as the average population, there will be a 25 percent increase in need for doctor services.

Rural areas could be hit hardest by the shortage, where access to doctors is already difficult, according to George Quinn, executive director of WCMEW. He says there have been improvements in the anticipated shortage since the first report in 2011, but more work still needs to be done to recruit medical students and keep doctors here after graduation.

"The more that you focus on Wisconsin background, the more successful you'll be in retaining the physicians when they ultimately practice," says Quinn. 

Only 33 percent of the students who study at medical schools in Wisconsin go on to become doctors here, but half of students who do their residency in Wisconsin stay here, according to Quinn. 

Mercy Health in Janesville has a growing family medicine residency program that brings in six new residents a year and will enroll seven new ones next year. Residency Director Dr. James Horton says it's important to introduce the young doctors to a variety of medical experiences in their training, to encourage them to consider rural practices. He got his start after his education in a small town and says while it can be a challenge to face fewer resources and sometimes lower pay, it's rewarding getting to know the community.

"You get to hold their hand, you get to talk with them, and you get to know, not only the patient, but you get to know the family, and you get to see them in the grocery store and say hi," Horton says.

Half of the students who graduated Mercy's program last year went on to rural clinics or hospitals. Dr. Jared Stahlecker is in his third year with the program and is getting ready to decide where he'll settle down once he's done with his residency. He says he's gotten experience in big cities, but he wants to be a small town doctor, even though there might be a shortage.

"Everywhere you wanna go they're looking for physicians and coming from family practice the demand is even greater," Stahlecker says. "The problem is for the patients. I don't think there's enough of us to go around and in order to deliver quality care for the amount of patients is important and if there's not enough of us, our time gets stretched too thin and we may not be able to deliver the quality that some people need."

The report lays out recommendations to reduce the projected physician shortage, including a continued focus on expanding residency programs in Wisconsin, a further improvement of the medical school infrastructure, an increased emphasis on recruitment and retention of doctors and a focus on team-based care to make doctors offices more efficient.

Quinn says in recent years, the state has invested $2.5 million in a grant program that has gotten 11 new residency programs started in less populated areas. That effort will bring 73 new doctors to essential areas like primary care, psychiatry and general surgery.

The Medical College of Wisconsin has stated two rural campuses, which will help bring doctors to northern Wisconsin. Plus, the school has also created two new residency programs in psychiatry. The UW School of Medicine and Public Health's Wisconsin Academy for Rural Medicine has grown from just five students six years ago, to 25 students focusing on becoming doctors in smaller towns.

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