Print Municipalities fight doctor drought
Written by Mark Lineberger   
Tuesday, 02 August 2011 00:00

The town of Clarkdale has joined three other Arizona municipalities in pushing for an effort to reduce the shortage of doctors many communities face in this state, particularly in rural areas.

Clarkdale, along with Sierra Vista, Bisbee and Douglas, have submitted a resolution to the League of Arizona Cities and Towns that, if passed, would urge Gov. Jan Brewer and the state Legislature to develop new laws that would expand funding for medical education, expand the number of students at state university medical schools and push for legal reforms that would help keep more doctors working in Arizona.

The league is a group comprised of representatives from municipalities across the state that works to further the interests of local Arizona governments at the state and federal level.

According to a 2005 study on the condition of the state’s physician workforce conducted by Arizona State University and the University of Arizona, the number of doctors in the state has failed to keep up with the massive population growth measured since 1992. Overall, the study found that Arizona has 219 doctors per 100,000 residents, compared with a national average of 293 per 100,000. In rural communities, the disparity is even worse, with only 60 physicians practicing for every 100,000 residents. In Clarkdale, residents aren’t too far from a number of medical services, but for other procedures, patients sometimes have to travel to one of the state’s metropolitan areas or, in other cases, even out of state.

The submitted resolution goes into more specific detail., particularly about the difficulty of retaining specialty physicians.

“By way of example, the city of Sierra Vista’s regional hospital is now the only location in all of Cochise County in which a woman can deliver a baby outside of a setting in which emergency services are available,” the resolution reads.

Many doctors continue to practice where they received their training. In Arizona, around 60 percent of locally-educated doctors stay here to continue practicing medicine.

The backers of the resolution believe that expanding funding for medical education programs and increasing the number of medical students would go a long way to boost the doctor-to-resident ratio here, citing the findings of different gubernatorial task forces that have studied the issue over the years.

Another critical factor is legal reform, said Mary Jacobs, Sierra Vista’s assistant city manager.

“Medical malpractice insurance makes it very expensive to practice medicine in Arizona,” Jacobs said. “There needs to be a look at the types of issues that people are allowed to sue over.”

Jacobs said that similar reform was carried out in Texas and that state has since been attracting more physicians to work there.

Dr. Scott Richins fills out patient charts at Verde Valley Medical Center on July 20. The League of Arizona Cities and Towns will consider a resolution on Thursday, Sept. 1, asking the Arizona Legislature to increase medical school funding to help combat the shortage of physicians in the state.This effort for reform was born out of a partnership between Sierra Vista and the local hospital, and it goes beyond just making sure people have access to a doctor.

“There’s only so much a local government can do about issues like this,” Jacobs said. “But the bottom line is that quality medical care is an important factor when it comes to economic development.”

That’s because a potential workforce’s access to health care is often an important factor decided by companies when looking for a place to locate, Jacobs said.

The spate of budget cuts across the board by the state Legislature hasn’t helped matters either, Jacobs said.

While this plan for reform would require more financial investment from a cash-strapped state government, the resolution argues that parts of the plan can be implemented with little fiscal impact.

Even the state’s highways are considered in the plan.

“In addition, more physicians in the rural areas of the state will reduce the number of trips on already crowded roadways that residents from those areas make to the Phoenix or Tucson metropolitan areas to seek treatment,” the resolution states.

The resolution will be put before a league subcommittee at the end of August for possible submission to the league’s governing board for further consideration in pushing for this legislation.

“We have to look at the issues that need support in order to make our communities, and the entire state, better,” Jacobs said.