Missouri bill aims to create a grant program to help recruit physicians to rural counties

Published: Jan. 17, 2022 at 10:15 PM CST
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SHANNON COUNTY, Mo. (KY3) - An effort is underway to help recruit more physicians in rural parts of Missouri.

Under House Bill 1630, the state Department of Health and Senior Services would create a grant program for physicians working and residing in rural counties with fewer than 35,000 inhabitants.

Hospitals across rural parts of the Ozarks say recruitment can be a challenge.

“In a rural setting, not everybody runs to a town of 3,500 people,” said Jeanne Hoagland with Cedar County Memorial Hospital.

Cedar County Memorial Hospital is down to one inpatient physician right now. The hospital’s second inpatient physician retired recently.

”Obviously, losing the other inpatient physician has put some added responsibilities on him,” Hoagland described.

The same challenge holds true several miles away at Missouri Highlands Health Care. The group serves seven counties, including Butler, Carter, Iron, Reynolds, Ripley, Shannon and Wayne counties.

”It is well known and highly cited that 37% of Missourians live in rural counties,” said Missouri Highlands Health Care CEO Karen White. “However, only 18% of any practicing or licensed physicians actually practice in rural areas. So it is always a struggle in our rural communities to staff, not only nurses, receptionists, scribes, lab techs, but especially physicians who are trained in family medicine.”

Missouri Highlands Healthcare is in need of three physicians across a handful of its facilities. White said those open positions are actually for four different locations.

”The more rural counties are where we tend to have the most openings out for physicians.” she said.

White said she would be excited if HB 1630 passed and created the grant program.

”Having a physician live in the same community that they serve really impacts the overall health of that community, not just their patients, but the entire health of that community,” she said. “Having that person there, really making them feel welcome into our communities is key.“

In Cedar County, Jeanne Hoagland said she also thinks community integration is valuable.

”We would love to have somebody that lived in our community that became part of the community, raised their family here, attended church, and saw us on the street,” she said.

Hoagland said she thinks the grant could help with recruitment efforts. However, she noted that some of Missouri’s rural counties are not far from large towns.

“Some of those counties are closer to metropolitan areas than we are,” she said. “Those physicians that are looking for that may have a tendency to go that way. We hope not. We hope what we can offer is an extra yes.”

Cedar County Memorial Hospital offers the National Health Services loan repayment. Missouri Highlands Health Care also does this program and offers a sign on bonus. Both said they hope the proposed grant would be an additional perk, along with the incentives they currently offer.

The Missouri Hospital Association also said the proposed grant could come with many benefits.

”This is for primary care in places where we’re having problems finding primary care clinicians,” said Dave Dillon with the Missouri Hospital Association. “So I think the more that you can stack incentives to practice in rural places on top of each other, the more attractive Missouri may be.”

Dillon also said the bill could help in the short-term, but possibly in the long-term as well if physicians become a part of their community.

“The difference that an incentive like this could potentially make would be one of many factors in attracting physicians in the short term,” he said. “And hopefully allow them to understand the community they would be practicing and better as they stay at that facility for a number of years. And then, you know, have stability even after the grant program went in, because that’s where they wanted to work. They have built relationships in that community.”

These groups also said COVID has only made the dire need for physicians worse.

“People are feeling just the need to kind of stay where they are at for stability purposes, if nothing else right now,” Hoagland said. “So that makes recruiting even more challenging.”

The groups also said the pandemic has caused a lot of stress for healthcare workers.

“This has been such a very intimate and hard process for clinicians,” Dillon said. “It’s going to have an influence on our workforce in general. And that’s going to be a big problem. Despite the fact that a lot of our folks have stuck with us through a very difficult time, that burnout is really eventually going to catch up with us. And it’s going to be impossible to replace the the volume of people we could very easily lose.”

Hospitals also said serving rural communities can come with its challenges.

“We do serve a rather challenging population in rural Missouri, because the folks here are a little older,” White said. “The social economic aspects of their lives are tougher than the rest of Missouri. We have a large poverty population that we serve. We try to get as much into each office visit as we can, because it’s challenging for folks to come in. They have transportation difficulties in addition to monetary difficulties.”

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