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Wis. at less risk of doc shortage than elsewhere

  • Article by: DINESH RAMDE
  • Associated Press
  • June 22, 2013 - 4:00 PM

MILWAUKEE — Wisconsin has done a better job of holding onto its primary care physicians than most other states have, and new programs for aspiring doctors have positioned the state to weather a possible shortage when the national health care overhaul takes effect next year.

Some states already have a shortage of primary-care physicians, and their problems could get worse when federal health care reforms go into effect in January. Millions of newly insured Americans are likely to seek care for the first time in years, possibly swamping health care systems that already are short-staffed.

But Wisconsin appears to be in good shape. The state ranks 14th in the U.S. with 86 primary-care physicians per 100,000 residents, better than the national average of 79 primary-care doctors. The Wisconsin pipeline for producing more doctors is expanding, and programs are in place to encourage doctors to practice in the rural areas that are traditionally underserved.

A November 2011 report by the Wisconsin Hospital Association said Wisconsin needs about 100 more physicians per year. Plans underway could account for at least half that number.

The Medical College of Wisconsin, a private medical school with about 800 students in Milwaukee, is opening satellite campuses in Green Bay and Wausau. Those campuses are expected to open in July 2015 with 15 students at each, eventually growing to 25 students.

The new programs are slated to wrap up in three years instead of four. Students would attend classes through summers and holidays, but they'd avoid the expense of paying a fourth year of tuition, room and board, said John Raymond, the medical school's president and CEO.

The goal of the new campuses is to recruit students who want to practice in rural areas and train them with experiences mirroring what they can expect to see when they graduate, he said.

It's not always easy to convince students to practice primary care or work in rural areas, Raymond said. The average medical school student graduates $150,000 in debt and will often specialize or move to higher-paying urban areas so they can get out of debt faster, he said.

That's why the state's other medical school, the University of Wisconsin-Madison, has two programs to specifically serve students interested in practicing rural medicine. The programs provide specialized training and hands-on experience in small communities.

Jonathan Jaffery, a medical director with the UW Medical Foundation, said he was satisfied with the state's level of primary-care physician staffing. He said he was more concerned about the people who still won't have health care access even after the health care overhaul goes into effect.

In other states, legislators are looking for ways to deal with possible physician shortages. Some lawmakers are crafting bills that would help increase the number of physicians or grant medical decision-making authority to pharmacists and other health care workers.

Not in Wisconsin, though. The only legislative move came late last month when the budget-writing committee of the GOP-controlled Legislature unanimously approved a measure that shifts money toward residency programs in the state. Supporters said the bill will encourage new doctors to remain in the state.

The bill must still pass in the state Assembly and Senate in identical form and then be signed by Gov. Scott Walker.

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