OKLAHOMA must take steps to address its physician shortage or the situation will get worse in a state that already ranks among the nation's least healthy. A recent New England Journal of Medicine article ranks Oklahoma as the state facing the most challenges in meeting medical needs.
The physician shortage will worsen as more doctors retire. In Oklahoma, one in four doctors is older than 60; their average age is 54. The physicians also will be serving more people as Oklahoma's pool of Medicaid patients swells under the new federal health care law.
Two Tulsa-based schools, the OU School of Community Medicine and the OSU Center for Health Sciences, have made easing the physician shortage a primary objective. The Legislature should consider the needs of these schools when allocating money for higher education.
Gerry Clancy, president of OU-Tulsa and dean of the School of Community Medicine, recently told the Oklahoma State Regents for Higher Education that the state's overall health will continue to deteriorate, particularly in rural areas with few or no doctors. Residents in those areas could see shorter life expectancies, he said.
Clancy and OU President David Boren asked regents to consider budgeting $500,000 annually for the school, which was established in 2008. Boren said the funding would signal a state commitment and help raise endowment money.
OSU officials also are looking for ways to train doctors for underserved locations. Howard Barnett, president of OSU-Tulsa and the OSU Center for Health Sciences, said the university hopes to establish a pipeline for placing doctors in rural areas.
However, the school has run into difficulty placing its students in residency positions at Oklahoma hospitals. Many Oklahoma medical students end up doing residencies in nearby states; they often settle in towns near where they did their residencies.
The OSU Center for Health Sciences, which hopes to grow from 96 students to 190 in five years, will seek funding from the Legislature for residency positions at hospitals in rural areas. As the college grows, it will become more important to give those students the chance to complete their residencies and stay and practice medicine in the state.
“We don't want to graduate doctors just to go to other states,” Barnett said.
Money again will be tight in the next legislative session. Yet the financial needs of these schools should be given close attention if Oklahoma is to make progress in reducing its physician shortage.