Looming doctor shortage a concern for rural Montana

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“The doctor will see you now.”

When we’re ill and in need of medical care, hunkered down in a waiting room, that’s the phrase we hope to hear in a timely manner. We want access to a doctor in our local community, and we want it when we need it.

Access to health care is one of those basic services many of us perhaps take for granted, but the ability to see a doctor when you’re sick could become more difficult in coming years, we’re told, as a shortage of physicians looms on the horizon, particularly in rural areas.

The statistics are fairly frightening. The Association of American Medical Colleges estimates the United States could see a deficit of up to 120,000 doctors by 2030, with rural states such as Montana likely to be hardest hit. An aging population is a key factor playing into the physician shortage.

Two bipartisan bills introduced recently by Montana Sen. Jon Tester aim to address America’s growing shortage of doctors in rural areas by taking on the issues of residency — the time an aspiring physician spends training at a hospital after finishing medical school.

The proposed Rural Physician Workforce Production Act would lift caps on reimbursement payments to rural hospitals covering the cost of taking on physician residents. The other bill, the Training the Next Generation of Primary Care Doctors Act, would supplement residency programs in rural areas, to the tune of $650 million over five years.

We’ve been fortunate here in the Flathead Valley because our hospitals have been able to attract a wide variety of specialists who desire the quality of life and access to the outdoors we offer here. We can only hope that continues. Our health-care services also are buoyed by Kalispell Regional Healthcare’s residency program and a year-long rural surgery residency program. Both of those efforts aim to attract doctors. Quite frankly, many rural Montana communities on the other side of the Continental Divide, in places like Glasgow or Browning, don’t have the same ability to attract new physicians.

We hope Congress will embrace these latest legislative efforts to make it easier for doctors to practice in rural areas. Here in Montana, our lives quite literally will depend on it.

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