Rural medicine crisis: Job offers

One of the signs that we are entering a worse crisis for rural medicine is job offers.

I am starting to keep the email job offers: so far the record is from Texas, a random out of the blue job offer for $500,000 yearly.

One half million dollars for a Family Practice job. I won’t take it. I like my clinic and anyhow, the pace they would set me to work is burning out physicians. They are quitting, though some die instead. A recent article said that this year a physician poll reports the number at burnout this year has risen from 40% to 50%.The job offers roll in. I get phone calls, emails, mailing and now my cat is getting rural family medicine job offers. Really. Desperate times.

Years ago I read that only 30% of family practice doctors are willing to take a rural job and that only 30% of those are willing to do obstetrics in a rural area. I did obstetrics as part of my practice from 1996 to 2009. I stopped when I opened my own practice, because the malpractice price tag is three times as much and my rural hospital was grumpy at me. Starting in my third year of medical school, I did deliveries for 19 years. During my nine years here, the cesarean sections were done by the general surgeons and we did not have an OB-gyn. I called Swedish Hospital Perinatology when I needed help. I got to know them well enough that if I had someone in preterm labor I would call and find out who was on call BEFORE I chose a medicine, because I knew which perinatologist liked terbutaline and which one would rather I would skip it and use procardia. They were fighting out the research: I didn’t know who was right, but it is a huge benefit to have your consultant be happy with your choice if you have to lifeflight the patient by helicopter at 3 am. With a 25 bed rural hospital, we try not to deliver a baby under 35 weeks, and it’s better to fly the baby in mother if you can’t stop the labor.

Back to the numbers: so 33 out of 100 family practice doctors will take a rural job and only 11 of those are willing to do obstetrics. Our first day of medical school, the faculty said, “Shake hands with the person on your right. Shake hands with the person on your left. At least one of the three of you will be sued for malpractice in your career.” Oh, goody, let’s start training with paranoia. Or is it just being realistic and prepared?

I worked for five years between college and medical school and took the GREs first. I thought I was going to get a PhD. However, I did not want to write a thesis and did not want to be one of three world experts in anything. I had a friend who was one of three world experts in honeybee behavior. I asked what happened when they got together. “We argue.” he said. I also did not want to publish or perish, tenure was becoming more of a problem and anyhow, I did not want to be tied to a university. I got a job working as a lab tech in the National Cancer Institute at NIH in Bethesda. Two years there gave me my answer: primary care is the ultimate generalist. I could work anywhere in the world, in a city, in a small town, and there is endless lifelong learning. I took the MCATs and got into medical school, determined to do primary care.

Back to the job offers: 450K for Iowa. 310K, 350K, signing bonus, paid move, 6 weeks “off” (As far as I can tell it’s always unpaid leave. No sick leave, no paid holidays, no paid leave at all. Do factor that in.)Production bonus. No call or phone calls only. Near a city! In a city! Cheap houses! Excellent schools for your children and 6 stellar golf courses! FP job in Texas, 315K, 4 day work week, signing bonus, loan forgiveness!

The most that I’ve made in a year, I think, is less than half the listed average income for family doctors, though that has risen by nearly 1/3 in the last ten years. And that was enough and I didn’t see enough of my two children and the next year I worked less. I have never made the “MGMA average” for what a family doctor makes and it was more than ten years ago. I am below average in income but I think I am above average in personal happiness and way below average in burn out! I made way less last year, because I was out sick for 6 months. Ok, I lost money. However, my clinic still nearly covered expenses and stayed open, with no provider from early June to November 15, thanks to my receptionist, my patients, the PA who stepped in in November and the other independent practitioners in town. The hospital system refused to help except that they took over my 18 patients on controlled substances… after I threatened to complain to the state that they were refusing care. How nice.

I have an old house and old cars. I have a son finishing college and a daughter about to start. More money to retirement seems like a good idea. I now have 25 years as a member of the American Academy of Family Practice and I am an “old” doctor, because I didn’t retire at 50. I told a younger partner at the hospital that I was deliberately being “below average” because I was going for a career with longevity and wanted to avoid burning out. He left town last year….

From the American Academy of Family Practice paper http://www.aafp.org/about/policies/all/rural-practice-paper.html : family practice providers are 15% of physicians in the US, but do 23% of the visits each year. And in rural areas about 42%. “In the U.S. as a whole there is 1 Primary Care physician per 1300 persons while in rural areas the ratio is 1 Primary Care physician per 1910 persons and 1 Family Physician per 2940 persons. In the most rural counties, those with a community of at least 2500 people but no town over 20,000, close to 30,000 additional Family Physicians are needed to achieve the recommended 1:1200 ratio.” I have patients driving from over an hour away because it takes months on the waiting list to see a primary care doctor in their area, and now I am seeing veterans too, because we are more than 40 miles by road from the nearest VA hospital.

This article:  http://doctordrain.journalism.cuny.edu/the-broken-system/family-practice-just-doesnt-pay/ makes me laugh. The student says that 90% of family practice visits are probably coughs and colds. Uh, I would say that less than 5% of mine are. Half of my patients are over 65 and what I do is care for chronic disease with some acute disease thrown in. Diabetes, hypertension, coronary artery disease, rheumatoid arthritis, stage III renal failure, opiate overuse syndrome, depression, PTSD, and the average patient has 4-5 chronic diseases, not one. So the complicated ones have 9 chronic diseases. If they have walking pneumonia and diabetes and are 80, what was their last creatinine so I can adjust the antibiotic dose for their stage three renal failure? My oldest current patient is 98, has diabetes and still is out haying…. rural medicine is never ever boring and some days I think, oh, I would pay to see a simple cold. In the last two months one patient had a four vessel bypass, two have hepatitis C, one has hepatitis B and last month I found one with pertussis: whooping cough. And one has to go to the Big City to see the gynecologist-oncologist….

Rural family medicine is the ultimate generalist. I have to know a little bit of everything and know when to call and ask questions and who to call. Once I had an obstetrics patient with severe and confusing back pain after an epidural. I knew it was something peculiar because we could barely control it with opiates and her back exam was fine. I started calling specialists: ob-gyn didn’t know. The nurse anesthetist. My local internist. An orthopedist. A neurologist, the closest one 90 miles away. Then I got it: I called an anesthesiologist in Denver, 250 miles from where I was. He said it was an inflammatory reaction to the epidural medicine and to give her steroids, which would fix it. It did… but it was my being sure that I had something different on my hands and the stubbornness to keep calling until someone knew the answer….

A friend from college got a PhD in genetics and then went to medical school at the same time as I did. We talked when we picked our specialties. She chose pathology. I chose Family Practice. “Not Family Practice!” she said. “Why not?” I asked. “You can’t know everything!” she said. I said, “Well, no one knows everything. Put three top specialists in a room and they argue about the research. The trick is knowing what you know and what you don’t know.”

We need more primary care physicians and more rural family doctors. And it’s only getting worse.

http://www.aafp.org/about/policies/all/rural-practice-paper.html
http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1071163/
http://healthleadersmedia.com/content/COM-208773/Physicians-Offer-Insights-on-Practicing-Rural-Medicine.html
http://www.siumed.edu/academy/jc_articles/Distlehorst_0410.pdf
http://doctordrain.journalism.cuny.edu/the-broken-system/family-practice-just-doesnt-pay/
https://www.aamc.org/newsroom/newsreleases/358410/20131024.html
https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/to-your-health/wp/2014/05/22/how-many-patients-should-your-doctor-see-each-day/
This blog post helped inspire this article: https://theridiculousmrsh.wordpress.com/2015/11/03/why-i-hope-my-doctor-is-off-having-a-cup-of-tea-as-seen-on-the-huffington-post-yup-actual-huffpost/

The picture is some of the madashell doctors on our first trip stumping for single payer health care in 2009.

Walk away

I used to carry my phone around
hoping you would call me now
I walk away

my house is three stories and
I can’t hear the phone and still
I walk away

I long to hear your voice I send
a hopeful query to you then
I walk away

I leave the phone plugged in the wall
and go up the stairs and down the hall
I walk away

I listen in the quiet to hope sighing
in my heart and maybe dying as
I walk away

I took the photo at the National Junior Synchronized Swimming Competition in 2009.