Physician shortage felt in some parts of Vermont

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(Host) Vermont has a growing shortage of physicians, particularly those in some medical specialties. Experts say rural hospitals have a hard time recruiting new physicians, in part because of the relatively low pay here compared to other states.

VPR’s John Dillon has more:

(Dillon) Vermont as a whole has more doctors per capita than the national average. But the most rural areas of Vermont – like the Northeast Kingdom and Franklin County – face a shortage of medical specialists. At the Northeastern Vermont Regional Hospital in Saint Johnsbury, CEO Paul Bengston is looking for an orthopedic surgeon. He says nearby hospitals are also in search of specialists.

(Bengston) “From my experience working with a cluster of rural hospitals up along the Connecticut River from the Canadian border down to Hanover, we do some have shortages in any number of specialties up here. Not at this hospital, but I know that people in this area are trying to find radiologists and having a very hard time of it. There are people trying to find anesthesiologists and having a very hard time finding people to fill those slots.”

(Dillon) Bengston says emergency room doctors and psychiatrists are also in high demand. He says that in general. doctors will earn more money in other places.

(Bengston) “That pay differential has always been there, and there seems to be an ebb and flow in terms of how that differential affects people’s willingness to come here or stay here. For example, I’ve seen medical oncologists earn roughly half to 60 percent of what they may make out in one of the Midwestern states.”

(Dillon) Vermont has several programs in place to encourage physicians to practice in the state. The Legislature has appropriated $250,000 for a loan repayment program for medical professionals. And the Freeman Foundation has provided an annual $2 million gift to the UVM College of Medicine to fund scholarships for doctors committed to staying in Vermont.

Doctor Mildred Reardon is associate dean for primary care at the medical college. She says physicians face an average debt of $130,000 after graduation. Yet state Medicaid payments remain low.

(Reardon) “The Medicaid reimbursement is in many cases not at a level that would cover the cost of delivering the care. And that is a very clear obstacle to trying to recruit and hold on to a physician in a rural area.”

(Dillon) The Vermont Medical Society also hopes to increase the supply of physicians in the state through a grant program administered by its charitable foundation.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m John Dillon.

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