Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

June 23, 2013

Study: More health providers needed in region

KATE COIL
Bluefield Daily Telegraph

PRINCETON — More providers of medical, dental and mental health care are needed across southern West Virginia and Southwest Virginia according to a recent study of available health care services nationwide.

A recent study published by the Association of American Medical Colleges ranked counties, social groups and other areas on scale of 1 to 25. Areas having the best medical, dental and mental health care were ranked as a 1 while areas ranked as a 25 have the least available health services.

In West Virginia, Mercer County attained a rank of 7 on the scale while Monroe County was ranked as a 10 and McDowell County ranked as a 20. In Virginia, Bland County attained a 14 ranking while Giles County attained a 10.

Tazewell and Buchanan were not ranked as individual counties. However, low-income residents in Buchanan County were ranked as a 19 on the scale while low-income residents in Tazewell County were ranked as a 16.

McDowell, Monroe, Buchanan, Bland, Giles and Tazewell all ranked as being “medically underserved” counties while only low-income residents in Mercer County ranked as “medically underserved.”

Rose Morgan, vice-president of patient care services with Princeton Community Hospital, said the hospital has various programs working to provide medical care to low-income residents as well as medical and mental health patients.

“In addition to our emergency medical center - which serves between 50,000 and 55,000 visitors per year — we also have our own clinics staffed with doctors and mid-level practitioners,” Morgan said. “We provide thousands of dollars in charity care every year.”

While the hospital spends thousands each year out of its own budget in charity care, Morgan said less and less money is being doled out for charity care programs.

“The cuts make it difficult to provide charity care,” she said. “The area where we live in has socioeconomic issues such as poverty, lack of transportation and patients who are under or uninsured. The lack of adequate support in the community for home health nurses and caretakers as well as the difficulty of qualifying for these positions presents issues for our elderly population. The hospital has become a stop-gap for people who can’t afford care but don’t qualify for other programs.”

Tim Crofton, executive director of the Tug River Health Clinic in McDowell County, said the area’s aging population and income level impacts both the need for and access to health care.

“Demographics play a major role,” Crofton said. “We have an older population and a population in one of the lowest income brackets in the country. We find a lot of folks have in their mind that they don’t know to if they have a medical problem. We see a lot of hypertension, diabetes, heart disease and other issues you commonly see with elderly populations.”

Factors like cost and transportation cause many patients to put off seeking medical care, Morgan said.

“Generally, there are a lot of factors that contribute to why people hold off on seeking medical care,” she said. “Those include not having or not being able to fit in to the schedule of a primary care physician as well as transportation issues and the inability to pay medical bills.”

Crofton said rural areas like McDowell County often have a hard time bringing in doctors, dentists and medical specialists.

“Travel is a problem that we are trying to address,” Crofton said. “We do have public transportation services that bring people to appointments. However, it is difficult to recruit doctors to such a remote area. Our area has to compete with doctors in larger towns and cities. We have not cardiologists and no orthopedists. If someone needs a medical specialist, they have to go out of the county and many won’t because of the distance or because they can’t afford to.”

Morgan said even larger cities like Princeton have issues recruiting medical professionals.

“Recruitment to the area is a continuous process,” Morgan said. “We are always recruiting primary care and specialist physicians to our area. It is a challenge because most don’t want to move here. A lot of the doctors we do get are originally from West Virginia and are moving back. It is easier to recruit people in a larger city with more amenities than in a rural area.”

However, Crofton said medical partnerships are helping to bring more services to the region.

“We at Tug River have developed a good relationship with Marshall University’s medical school and have their students come down here,” he said. “We are working with West Virginia University and their students to do the same as far as women’s and children’s health issues. We do a lot to bring out doctors, dentists and nurse practitioners to take part in local health programs as well as expose these people to our area. We try to encourage students in the county to explore medical careers in the hopes they will return home with their degrees.”

Areas and regions were ranked by the AAMC based on how many primary health care physicians are available to serve the area’s population, the percentage of low-income residents, infant mortality rates, the percentage of elderly patients, and the distance or amount of time it takes for residents to reach their closest health care facility.

— Contact Kate Coil at kcoil@bdtonline.com