Life in Balance: Rural Idaho doctor shortage

Idaho ranks second to last in the nation when it comes to the number of physicians per capita in our state.

BOISE -- Idaho ranks second to last in the nation when it comes to the number of physicians per capita in our state. It may be easy not to care about the issue if you live in Boise or Nampa.

Idaho's larger cities will always be able to attract enough physicians. It's families living in rural Idaho whose health care is at risk, according to Dr. Ted Epperly.

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"That's a problem for Idaho."

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Epperly is the President and CEO of the Family Medicine Residency of Idaho. He currently serves as the Chairman of the Board for the Idaho Healthcare Coalition that is in charge of helping transform health care for the state of Idaho.

Governor Otter appointed him to the position.

Epperly believes the state's physician shortage comes from the lack of medical residency programs in Idaho.

Physicians complete medical residencies after graduating from medical school. The programs are three to five years of additional training, working alongside attending physicians.

Medical residencies are required before a physician can become board certified and practice independently.

"So we find ourselves in a hole right now in 2018, playing catch up ball," said Epperly.

Epperly says medical residencies are crucial to growing the state's physician workforce. He says data shows 50 to 75% of physicians will stay within 100 miles of where they do their residency program, not necessarily where they went to medical school.

The more medical residency programs there are in the state, the more we start to populate our physician workforce.

"What tends to happen in that three years is the physician gets to know the community, his or her partners," said Epperly. "The spouse or significant other of the physician finds a place for kids to go to school, perhaps finds a church, finds a job in the community and that whole culturation process happens."

Epperly believes residencies are even more essential for rural Idaho, where attracting physicians outside the state isn't always easy.

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For example, in Shoshone, located in Lincoln County, which is roughly the size of Rhode Island, there is only one family doctor, Dr. Keith Davis.

"If he stops and we don't get a recruit there, then we're looking at patients driving for 50 to 100 miles to see the next physician," said Epperly. "And there are many towns like that across the state of Idaho where we have limited numbers of physicians."

Epperly says Dr. Davis is also an example of the other part of the doctor shortage equation, aging physicians.

According to Epperly, 27% of Idaho's existing physicians are older than age 60.

"So we're going to have retirements happen in the next three to seven years at the same time we have a state that's growing, so it's critically important that the Idaho Legislature, the state Board of Education, acts on this at this time to start to right this," said Epperly.

Epperly presented a plan to state lawmakers last week that would grow medical residency programs in the state over the next 10 years -- from the current nine programs up to 21, more than doubling the number of resident graduates each year. But as with most needs in the state, the solution requires funding.

"The early part of the pipeline, the medical school, the Legislature invested in, but the latter part of the pipeline, the sprinkler system, to put these graduates in the state was not invested in," said Epperly.

Epperly believes the health of our state is at risk if we don't act.

"If we don't have correct number of physicians to care for them they will have problems with timely access to appropriate care," said Epperly. "When that starts to happen, they live sicker and they die younger."