Eastern Washington is facing a doctor shortage, and two state legislators say they want to do something about it.
The state has 1,500 slots each year for doctors in training, called residents. However, 1,400 of those slots go to students in the metro areas of Western Washington, said Rep. Joe Schmick, R-Colfax.
Schmick toured the new Trios Southridge Hospital on Thursday with Rep. Larry Haler, R-Richland, and met with doctors and staff.
Haler plans to introduce legislation in the 2015 session that would help bring more residents to the eastern part of the state by creating and funding more residency slots.
“I want to make sure that whatever laws we come up with cover the hospitals in this region and cover them fairly,” Haler said. “This area is definitely underserved and we need to get out of that.”
The representatives are hopeful that the residents will stay in the area if they come here. The average age of doctors in the state has reached 58.
“I think we have to be a little bit innovative and look for practical solutions for how we can get new people in the healthcare work force, and my main interest is in rural areas,” Schmick said.
The representatives learned about the three-year residency program at Trios, which started last year with three family medical residents and three residents in internal medicine. The program now has nine residents and will grow to 18.
The only rural hospital that Trios now sends its residents to is in Hermiston, which Schmick joked doesn’t do him any good since it’s out of state. He has a number of critical access hospitals in his district that need doctors because the first 20 minutes of care is important for people in emergencies, he said.
Hospitals would benefit if they were offered business and operations tax refunds to help offset the cost of providing doctors to rural areas, said Dr. Heather Phipps, director of medical education at Trios. Taxes could also be reduced to help compensate for some of the time spent dealing with federal paperwork requirements.
“If they have any way of providing any funding to help with startup costs, that would be beneficial,” she said.
Getting the residents into rural hospitals would aid in providing them with a wider variety of training, Phipps said.
“They need a full spectrum of experience,” she said.
One problem is getting doctors who grew up near Seattle and are used to an urban lifestyle to move to Eastern Washington, Schmick said. He suggested that hospitals’ nonprofit foundations look into ways to provide incentives to get them here.
A loan repayment program also would help in getting doctors to the area, Phipps said.
“Once they’re here, they’re going to stay longer,” she said.
The conversation sometimes moved into other areas of medicine. Chuck Barnes, Trios’ executive director of support services, said he would like a more standardized scorecard for rating hospitals, saying many patient-rated systems focus on the luxuries they receive while in the hospital more than whether they were treated well for their ailment.
Hospital officials agreed with the legislators that tort reform, such as what was passed in Texas in 2003, would be good. The reform capped damages that can be awarded in malpractice cases.