Inland Northwest doctor shortage could get worse before it gets - Spokane, North Idaho News & Weather KHQ.com

Inland Northwest doctor shortage could get worse before it gets better

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SPOKANE, Wash. -

The doctor shortage in the U.S. and our region is real, and now we're learning it's expected to get worse before better.

Last month's workforce report by the Association of American of Medical Colleges predicts a shortage of up to 94,000 doctors in the nationwide by 2025 - that's just nine years from now.

But the strain on health care is already being felt here. Here's a typical Monday for Dr. Rick Whitehead - a pediatric ophthalmologist practicing in Spokane. "So I was in the operating room from 3:30am until 7 in the morning, and then my day officially started,"  Whitehead recalled. "I try to keep the mindset of each patient gets my entire attention. I don't think of the backlog of patients I have, I don't think I have 30 more patients to see."

Health Professional Shortage Area

What's been turning most of Washington into a HPSA (Health Professional Shortage Area)?

Population growth, not matched by graduating doctors that stay here combined, with a large number of aging doctors retiring.

Washington State University researchers indicate 19 of 39 counties in Washington are severely underserved, with 10 doctors per 10,000 people. And the average age of physician doctors in Washington, is older than that found in 2/3rds of all other states. The need for Washington going forward: an additional 1,695 primary care physicians between 2010 and 2030 - roughly 85 more a year.

"It's Frustrating"

For families, that means calling way ahead to the doctor's office, just to get in.

Audra Divis knows the challenges - and lives with them - almost every day, along with a critical need for specialized care. "Well I have six kids. Two of them were born with a rare genetic disorder - they have no eyes," Divis said. "I have another son who has a brain tumor and he sees a lot of specialists for developmental delays.     

But getting into see a specialist can take more than two weeks to schedule, according to a survey by Merritt Hawkins, the country's largest physician search and consulting firm. Patients hoping to see an OB-GYN, cardiologist, dermatologist, or orthopedic surgeon are looking at a delay of 18.5 days on average. The line to see a primary care doctor is even worse - 19.5 days.

"It's a little bit frustrating sometimes," Divis said. "I mean, I love the care of our doctors, but it just seems like they're overworked."

Finding a Cure        

Dr. Whitehead, and other physicians we spoke with, are encouraged by the huge regional push to train new doctors.

That includes the University of Washington - Gonzaga Medical School partnership, and the new WSU medical school still on track to open in fall of 2017. They are in the accreditation process and have hired a new dean. Also helpful: the push to address the physician shortage is a top priority right now in the health care industry, all the way to the governor's office.

But what can patients do right now, to start the process of finding a doctor to best fit their needs? Gone are the days you can just look up a list of doctors from the phone book or an internet directory. To give you an edge, we've created this database of resources to speed up and narrow down the search process.

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