An initiative designed to combat a shortage of doctors in rural Oklahoma is headed to the state Legislature.
The Oklahoma Regents for Higher Education approved a budget request Thursday that would fund the Oklahoma Healthcare Physician Shortage Initiative.
The funding request would give $1 million each to the University of Oklahoma College of Medicine and Oklahoma State University College of Osteopathic Medicine, as well as $2 million to regional and community colleges to help increase the number of medical school students. The regents' office will submit the request to the Legislature for consideration.
America's Health Rankings for 2011 places Oklahoma at No. 48, two spots lower than the previous year. Only Mississippi and Louisiana fell behind Oklahoma in the rankings, which are released annually by the United Health Foundation.
The rankings cite a high prevalence of smoking and obesity, limited availability of primary care doctors and low use of prenatal care in the state.
Additionally, a New England Journal of Medicine article ranks Oklahoma as the state that faces the most challenges in meeting medical needs. That ranking is based on the ratio of Medicaid expansion to primary care capacity.
According to the article, Oklahoma is expected to see a large expansion in the Medicaid population as the federal health care law takes effect. But Oklahoma doesn't have the primary care capacity to deal with those newly insured patients. Without outside efforts, the demand for medical care could outstrip the supply of providers in the state.
Officials from OU and OSU outlined their plans to combat the problem at the board's meeting last month. They expressed concern over a shrinking supply of doctors in rural Oklahoma.
During the December meeting, OU President David Boren and Gerry Clancy, president of OU-Tulsa, told the board they're working to expand the Tulsa-based OU School of Community Medicine. Clancy, dean of the school, said the program is a partnership between OU and the University of Tulsa.
Unlike the Oklahoma City-based OU Health Sciences Center, the school focuses specifically on how to meet the needs of underserved areas and rethinking the way the health care system works, Clancy said.
One of the ways the system is changing is through the use of medical informatics, or computer software that is used to enhance medical care. Clancy said a professor recently developed a program that uses secure Internet connections to allow primary care doctors to reach medical specialists for consultation questions. The specialist then may simply answer the question or ask to see the patient.
Much of the time, Clancy said, doctors are finding that they avoid referring patients to specialists simply by talking to the specialist beforehand. That helps alleviate the strain on specialists, who tend to be in high demand, he said.
During the meeting, Howard Barnett, president of OSU-Tulsa and the OSU Center for Health Sciences, said the university hopes to establish a pipeline that would send doctors to rural Oklahoma.
The process would begin by seeking out students from rural areas and recruiting them to go to medical school. During medical school, those students would do as much of their work as possible in rural Oklahoma, Barnett said.
Part of the plan involves providing opportunities for medical students to do their residency work in rural hospitals, Barnett said. Because there aren't as many residency slots in Oklahoma as there are students who compete for them, Oklahoma students wind up taking residencies in nearby states.
Because doctors typically settle in towns near where they did their residencies, Barnett said, that means Oklahoma is training young doctors who end up practicing in other states.