Rural communities have always had a difficult time attracting doctors with an interest in establishing local practices. That dynamic has changed in recent years though, thanks to a plan in which metropolitan area physicians make regular visits to smaller communities.
Gary Worcester, an Oklahoma City cardiologist, has been traveling to smaller Oklahoma communities for the past 15 years. His rotating schedule takes him to Madill, Watonga, Blackwell and Yukon. Over the course of a year, Worcester says he’ll see about 1,200 patients in those communities.
“I have a mature practice so to be able to continue to serve people I’ve seen in the last 20 years, it’s much easier for me to go to them,” Worcester said. “They don’t like the inconvenience of having their kids take off work to drive them to Oklahoma City. Now they can schedule yearly or six-month visits without leaving their own community.”
Worcester is one of approximately 15 cardiologists from the Integris Health group who makes regular visits to a dozen smaller communities. The majority of the patients he sees have been referred by primary care doctors in their respective communities. Similar programs have been established throughout the United States and their numbers continue to grow.
Oklahoma Cardiovascular Associates is another Oklahoma City-based practice that has become increasingly involved in sending specialty-care doctors around the state. Michael Schoeffler is one of three dozen physicians from OCA who makes weekly visits to see patients in small towns.
“Most of us have one day a week set aside when we travel,” Schoeffler said. “I go to Seminole, Holdenville, Cushing and Chandler, all of which are relatively easy to travel to. For trips to Woodward, Guymon or McAlester, we have a plane that’s available to us so that you’re not wasting an entire day in the car. It’s much more time effective.”
Schoeffler said the physicians at Oklahoma Cardiovascular Associates service 72 different Oklahoma communities on a regular basis. At these outreach clinics, visiting cardiologists can keep track of tests their patients have undergone and how they’re responding to blood pressure medications.
“We’re not out in the state frequently enough to deal with emergency cases, so much of what we do is preventive medicine,” Schoeffler said. “Primarily we’re talking about exertional type situations: difficulty breathing or chest discomfort. We do vascular medicine as well, including a significant amount of carotid work to detect the potential for strokes.”
It’s estimated that 80 million American adults have some type of cardiovascular disease. Approximately 500,000 die from heart disease each year, an alarming statistic that should prompt everyone to check their cholesterol levels and blood pressure regularly. Those with a family history of heart disease could be at a higher risk than the regular population. Early detection is the best course of action.
“If you can see people when their symptoms first start, it’s possible to postpone or alleviate episodes of myocardial infarctions or heart failure,” Schoeffler said. “Getting out into these smaller communities is also a good change of pace for us and the patients we see are appreciative and responsive to our care.”