McALESTER — An initiative designed to combat a shortage of doctors in rural Oklahoma took its first step toward that goal Wednesday.
Officials from McAlester Regional Health Center and Oklahoma State University College of Osteopathic Medicine announced the launch of two new residency programs at the hospital.
The programs are the first of their kind to be created under the Oklahoma Hospital Residency Training Program Act, which provides $3.08 million to establish doctor residency programs at hospitals in rural and underserved areas around the state. Gov. Mary Fallin signed the bill into law in June.
The hospital plans to establish a residency program in internal medicine and another in family medicine, said Howard Barnett, president of the Tulsa-based OSU Center for Health Sciences. Each of those programs would include nine residency openings — three each for first-year, second-year and third-year students.
Ranked at 48th in U.S.
State health and higher education officials hope the program will help the state combat a worsening doctor shortage, especially in rural parts of the state.
That shortage was listed as one of the main reasons for Oklahoma's poor performance in a recent state-by-state public health ranking. The 2011 edition of America's Health Rankings places Oklahoma at No. 48, two spots lower than the previous year. Only Mississippi and Louisiana fell lower than 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.
Too few residencies
A lack of residency slots around Oklahoma has contributed to that problem, Barnett said. Oklahoma's two medical schools — OSU's Center of Health Sciences and the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center — produce plenty of young doctors, he said. But because of a shortage of residency slots around the state, they're often forced to look elsewhere to do their residencies.
Young doctors tend to stay in the geographic areas where they do their residencies, Barnett said, so even as Oklahoma faces a critical shortage of health care workers, its medical schools have been sending doctors to practice in other states.
“Oklahoma does not have enough residency slots to go around,” he said.
Eventually, Barnett said, he'd like to see the program establish about 250-300 residency openings at hospitals across the state. That total would allow about 100 new doctors to go to work in rural Oklahoma per year.
Even with that total, Barnett said, it's unlikely that Oklahoma will reach the national average in terms of doctors per capita. But an influx of 100 new doctors per year over 15 years or so will make a big difference in access to health care in those areas.
“You've got to start somewhere,” Barnett said.
“We're starting in McAlester.”