The Rural Doctor Shortage Now

By: Daniel Nardini

Lawndale News Chicago's Bilingual Newspaper - Commentary I know a very good friend who told me recently that he no longer can go and see his family doctor. For years, he had gone to a town about 19 miles from where he lives to see a doctor who took care of his needs and medications. My friend lives in a very rural area of northwest Illinois close to the Mississippi River. Because of his location it has always been hard for him to find a doctor, and because of his economic situation he could not move anywhere else. One day, his doctor resigned his practice and moved to a larger town close to Rockford, Illinois. The doctor is now too far away, and if my friend wants to continue to see this doctor he would have to travel 60 miles one way. This is not feasible. Now my friend has to find a new doctor, and wonder if the next doctor will be as good as the previous one.

This is a very common problem in much of America’s rural areas. Among many things that are not accessible is health care. Finding a doctor, let alone a doctor that a patient may be comfortable with, is a hard thing to do. In the major cities and suburbs, doctors are a dime a dozen. This should come as no shock since doctors, like everyone else, want to make money and they go where the people with money are. Or rather they just go where the people are. My friend’s former physician stayed in a rural area only because he had to complete his internship residency. Once that was completed, he certainly did not stay long. One of the major problems that doctors face is paying off their tuition debts. The average would-be physician may incur as much as $150,000 to $200,000 in debt over a four to six year period. This means that once they start their profession, they need to pay off this huge debt.

Such a debt prohibits many doctors from taking up residence in places with few people who do not have much money to begin with. Hence, finding a doctor in a rural area is about as likely as finding gold in a river stream. I remember reading in a magazine put out by AARP (American Association of Retired People) that this country will have a shortage of primary care doctors across the nation in the not-so-distant future. We already have a serious shortage now, and there does not seem to be anything to counter-balance it for people who live in rural and out-of-the-way places. The Affordable Health Care Act does nothing to change this equation. Various states are importing more doctors from other countries to try and off-set this imbalance in rural and out-of-the-way places, but it will not work. The real solution will have to be a revamping of the whole health care system, and find ways to give doctors incentives for wanting to set up a practice in places where people do not have access to health care or a clinic (or who have to travel long distances to get to one).

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