Rural health crisis escalates: Sometimes there’s only 1 doctor in town (if you’re lucky)

In rural areas in Colorado, Oklahoma and North Carolina, doctors, their assistants and patients feel the effects of a shortage of healthcare providers.

Doctors in rural communities in Colorado are retiring—or dying—and there’s no one to take their place, according to a Denver Post report. Patients know nurse practitioner Karen Tomky, who has a small medical office in Crowley County where there are no doctors, will turn 65 next April and they worry. “Everybody around here knows my age. So, they keep asking me if I’m going to retire. You see it all the time. Someone closes their practice, and they’re gone,” she told the newspaper.

Tomky grew up in the county and she came back 30 years ago at the urging of a doctor to join his practice. Now many rural communities struggle to recruit doctors and other practitioners. That’s the case in Park County, Colorado, where, desperate to find a doctor to run its clinic that closed three years ago, officials earlier this year offered to rent the facility for just $1 a year without any takers.

States are trying to correct that with a variety of programs, such as the one that brought Sheleatha Taylor-Bristow, M.D., to Spencer, Oklahoma, a small community with a population of about 4,000, according to NewsOK. She participated in the Oklahoma Medical Loan Repayment Program, where physicians must agree to establish a practice in a medically underserved area of the state for two years and then become eligible for student loan repayments that last up to four years as long as they maintain that practice.

In North Carolina, Francis Aniekwensi, M.D., a partner at Beckford Medical Clinic, told North Carolina Public Radio that he is feeling the pinch after the only free health clinic in Warren County closed because of funding problems.

He and his partner operate clinics in three counties that care for more than 10,000 patients and are the reason why Warren County still has a doctor. He sees patients, whether or not they can pay, and says a doctor really has to want to be in a rural community.

“You have to have that spirit of service. And you have to want to serve the people, just to be able to serve,” he said.

The shortage of medical providers across rural America has resulted in shorter life spans and higher rates of disease for those living in rural communities, according to The Denver Post. Like Oklahoma, Colorado has the Colorado Health Services Corps that also helps new doctors repay medical school loans if they work in a rural or underserved area of the state.

And the University of Colorado’s School of Medicine has started the Rural Track, a program that takes about 20 students per class and prepares them to work in rural communities. But it's not always easy to get them to stay, according to the article. The program has graduated more than 130 new doctors, but fewer than half now practice in rural settings.