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Oklahoma's rural areas search for doctors to come 'home'

As Oklahoma faces one of the worst physician shortages in the nation, medical professionals in rural areas share why they decided to practice in underserved areas.
by Jaclyn Cosgrove Modified: July 2, 2013 at 11:00 pm •  Published: July 1, 2013

Dr. Dennis Carter's decision on where to practice medicine wasn't difficult.

Since 1988, he has been in Poteau — nearly 200 miles southeast of Oklahoma City; population 8,300.


“Home,” he said. “It's just home.”

Carter grew up in Heavener, a town of 3,400 that sits about 13 miles south of Poteau. He went to college in the area and left only for medical school.

He came back in 1988, worked at the Poteau hospital for about 12 years and opened up his own practice.

That's likely part of a resume among many small-town doctors.

Four things predict where doctors will practice midcareer — where they grew up, where they go to college, whether their medical school has a curriculum with an emphasis on primary care or rural and underserved populations, and where they do their residency, according to the Oklahoma State University Center for Health Sciences.

Offering ‘total care'

Carter starts each day about 6 a.m. at the Poteau hospital. He'll do his rounds there, seeing patients, writing orders and helping discharge patients.

Poteau's hospital and health care system is small enough at this point that the hospital doesn't have a hospitalist, a doctor who sees patients just in the hospital.

“So far, in this area, the physician takes care of the patient as long as the patient stays in the area and uses our local hospital, which is obviously not required,” Carter said. “We take care of them in the office setting, we take care of them in the hospital setting, if they're transferred to the nursing home, we take care of them. We still offer that total care.”

After about three hours at the hospital, he will go about one-third of a mile down Dewey Avenue to his private practice. From there, he will see patients throughout the day and hopefully have lunch with his wife.

He usually goes home about 6 p.m., unless he needs to go back to the hospital. At home, he'll answer pages through an app on his iPhone and also any calls he gets on his home phone.

“And do it all over again,” he said.

Physician shortage

On a per capita basis, Oklahoma has one of the worst physician shortages in the nation, according to the OSU Center for Health Sciences. A lack of doctors in rural areas is a problem felt nationwide, though. About 18 percent of Americans live in a rural area. Only 9 percent of doctors are in rural areas.

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by Jaclyn Cosgrove
Medical and Health Reporter
Jaclyn Cosgrove writes about health, public policy and medicine in Oklahoma, among other topics. She is an Oklahoma State University graduate. Jaclyn grew up in the southeast region of the state and enjoys writing about rural Oklahoma. She is...
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