Need for family doctors grow in Wisconsin

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EAU CLAIRE, Wis. (WEAU) -- With a shortage in physicians plus more patients with health care under the Affordable Care Act, one residency program says there is a greater need for family physicians.

The number of family physicians that enter the market each year depends on the number residency positions. In the Chippewa Valley, there's only one program. The Eau Claire Family Medicine residency program, which has been around for 37 years, graduates about five to six doctors every year.

First year resident Dr. Chameng Vang, DO will join the workforce as primary care doctor in two years.

“I went to family medicine because it’s a very broad spectrum field,” said Vang. “I like to work in an under-served area just because if think that's the locations where they need a lot of help and that’s why if came to family medicine.”

Vang wants to work with Hmong patients specifically, breaking down language and introducing western medicine to the community.

For Vang, at the end of the tunnel there is job security.

“Knowing that we'll have a job out there and people will look towards us to help them out, be responsible for their health, especially with the new health care coming up,” said Vang.

Like the majority of residents who graduate from Eau Claire Family Medicine, Wisconsin is among the states on his list for places he'd like to practice.

Dr. Joan Hamblin, MD is the program director at Eau Claire Family Medicine. She said the program is the primary source for family physicians in northern and northwestern Wisconsin. Last year, all four graduates from the program found jobs in the state.

The American Association of Medical Colleges estimates that the U.S. will face a shortage of 46,000 primary care doctors by 2020,

“There's a huge shortage for family physicians” said Hamblin. “The Wisconsin Hospital Association says we need 100 new physicians every year just to replace the ones who are retiring. So yes, there's a huge shortage. That doesn't even count for the expected increase with the Affordable Care Act.”

She said patients who now have health care under the Affordable Care Act are starting to come in, some seeking primary care doctors for the first time.

The population is growing and getting older as baby boomers age.

But even before the Affordable Care Act, Hamblin said there was a need for doctors in rural and inner city Wisconsin.

One example is Rusk County Hospital where the birthing center had to be closed this year due to a shortage in OB doctors.

“Those women in Rusk County have to travel long distances just to get OB care which is sort of sad,” said Hamblin. “It’s kind of reverting back to the time in the 60s when Wisconsin had severe shortages.”

She said the fear is when people retire and don’t get replaced the number physicians can’t mean the demand for the growing number of patients. People will either have to wait a long time for health care or drive further away to a different clinic.

“One would like to increase the number of family physicians, and of course that starts with recruiting at the medical school level and increasing residency slots,” said Hamblin.

She said more and more medical students are choosing to sub-specialize in fields like cardiology, orthopedic surgery or radiology instead of family medicine.

The reason: money and lifestyle.

“The amount of money that you could make in a sub-specialty is markedly increased over a primary physician,” said Hamblin. “Part of it is lifestyle.”

Family medicine doctors could potentially be on call every day or every other day. She said people who care about lifestyle might choose to work 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. each day which is difficult to do in rural areas.

Training residents also cost money. Because Eau Claire Family Medicine is a University of Wisconsin program, she said state budget cuts impact how many family doctors the program can produce.

Hamblin said because the program is based out of Madison, rural training programs like the one in Eau Claire, Wausau or the Fox Valley might not get as much funding.

She said those three residencies are basically producing the majority of family physicians for Wisconsin outside of Dane County and Milwaukee County.

"To lose state funding we feel would be a huge disservice and I don’t know where that would be replaced or how that would be replaced,” said Hamblin.

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