INDIANAPOLIS (WISH) - Leslie Wells is in search of a new family doctor. Finding one isn't the problem. The challenge, she says, is getting in to see them.
"The earliest I was able to be seen was I think 30 days," she said. "The longest was September."
A newly-released Congressional study finds we're all having to wait longer just to get into the waiting room. Last year, it took about 45 days for new patients to be seen – up from 29 days in 2010.
One of the reasons: when it comes to the family physician – there simply aren't enough of them.
Ron Gibson, CEO of Citizens Health in Indianapolis, said he's been searching for another doctor for more than five weeks. So far one person has been applied.
"And that doctor was not board-certified or board-eligible," said Gibson.
"You hear it all the time," said Dr. Craig Brater, Dean of the IU School of Medicine. "You talk to any of the big health systems, you talk to a smaller clinic, you talk to somebody in practice that's trying to find a partner. They'll tell you that. It takes a long time to fill the position if you can at all. The supply is simply not out there."
Today, the federal government reports nearly 57 million people in the U.S. live in areas where there isn't adequate access to primary healthcare.
According to the Department of Health and Human Services, that includes more than one third of Indiana – primarily in low-income urban areas and more rural communities like Putnam County.
Dr. Brian Black is a family doctor in Putnam County. He and his dad see from 50 to 10 patients a day. He said many people today aren't waiting for a family doctor.
"We get a lot of people that aren't able to find a primary care doctor for weeks on end, have recurring problems, and they keep coming into the emergency room and over the course of the last several years, I've seen the problem increase drastically," said Black.
Now with baby boomers nearing retirement – including a quarter of all family doctors themselves – experts say 16,000 new doctors are needed to fix the shortage.
The IU School of Medicine responded to the call to all medical schools to increase their class sizes.
"We responded by shooting for a 30-percent increase," said Brater.
But convincing students to become family doctors today isn't easy. Specialists make more money. And getting students to choose rural areas or inner-cities is also a challenge.
Brater said IU is trying to address that too by sending more students to learn in IU teaching hospitals in other parts of the state rather than just Indianapolis.
"(The hope is) that if students spend more of their time in smaller communities, they will have a higher likelihood of choosing to go into primary care and in turn practicing in similar communities," he said.
Dr. Black attended the Richard Lugar Center for Rural Health in Terre Haute – designed for residents to practice in rural, under-served areas
He said he hopes other students might also find fulfillment as a hometown family doctor.
"There's a continuity of care to be a family doctor that you get to experience that's very unlike being in the emergency room," said Black. "It's a great honor."
There are also more schools to train future doctors – including Marion University.
But educators say there is another piece of the puzzle. Before they go out on their own, students have to first do their residency program – high level, on-the-job training. Medicare pays for that and there are only so many open spots. Brater says the number of available spots hasn't changed in at least ten years.
To see as many patients who need to be seen that day, doctors offices like Citizens Health and Dr. Black's accept walk-in appointments and also employ more physicians assistants and nurse practitioners.
Gibson said there are some things you can do to make sure you're seen when you need to be:
- Don't wait until you're sick.
- Reach out and make an initial appointment as soon as you move to town so you're in the system and they can work you in when you do get sick.
- Try not to be picky about when you're seen. Be willing to make an appointment whenever they have time available – even if that's early in the morning or late in the evening.
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