Wanted: Small-town doctors

Marketplace Staff Feb 27, 2007

Wanted: Small-town doctors

Marketplace Staff Feb 27, 2007

KAI RYSSDAL: The National Governors Association’s been meeting in Washington this week. Amid discussion about the state of the states, there’s been some lobbying, too. Governors from 14 states are warning they’re about to run out of money for a key children’s health insurance program.

Caring for the uninsured is only one of the health care problems they’re facing. State governments are trying to make sure rural areas are covered, too. Pomeroy, Washington is trying once more to sell small town life to big city doctors, as Chana Joffe-Walt reports.

CHANA JOFFE-WALT: Dr. Syed Zafar is from Bangladesh. He wanted American citizenship, and to get it, he had to put in three years as a physician in an underserved medical facility. That’s code for the inner-city, or the boonies.

Zafar and his wife opted for Pomeroy, Washington, a tiny town of 1,400 on the state’s eastern border with Idaho.

SYED ZAFAR: We came by one route where we could actually see from the hilltop the size of the town. We thought it’s awfully small, so that struck us quite a bit and amazed us.

For the past seven years, Zafar has been the town’s only full-time doctor. But this summer, the Zafars are leaving. They’re moving to Atlanta to be closer to extended family. And to be in a place where they aren’t the only Bangladeshis.

Talk to Pomeroy’s residents and its clear: this town is used to having its heart broken by doctors.

WOMAN: I think people are small-town people or they’re not. And some of ’em don’t find out they’re not until they come here.

WOMAN 2: Doctors, they come and go like Kleenex. (Laughs) Unfortunately because we’re the end of the world, I’m sure.

Everybody in this town is sick of the Kleenex effect. So this time around, the hospital is devoting $50,000 to recruiting a new physician. And they’ve brought in the big guns.

JOFFE-WALT: So where are we going now?

KURT VOELKER: We’re gonna take a community tour. All four corners of the community.

Kurt Voelker is the big gun. He’s a national recruiter with Merritt Hawkins and Associates. He says to sell this job, he has to sell Pomeroy.

And that’s not gonna be easy. Rural areas across the U.S. struggle to find family doctors. The money is in specializing. Plus the workload in a small town is intense — you have no colleagues, and you have to convince your spouse to move to the sticks.

But, Voelker says, there are a lot of positives here. So: you ready for the pitch?

VOELKER: Someone could come here whose got leadership abilities who has a love for taking care of a community.

To get doctors, rural communities are getting more and more creative. They’re hiring people like Voelker, applying for federal grants or even offering to pay back medical school loans.

But the problem is only expected to get worse. Baby boomers are aging and fewer Americans are going into the medicine. The situation will be especially bad in rural areas. So towns like Pomeroy will likely find themselves battling the Kleenex effect well into the future.

In Pomeroy, Washington, I’m Chana Joffe-Walt for Marketplace.

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