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So ... what will it take to recruit more primary care medical providers to the Yakima Valley? The answer would be easier if so many other communities also weren’t staring at a shortage of doctors, nurse practitioners, nurses and other critical medical personnel.

A story in the Feb. 26 Yakima Herald-Republic laid out the frustrations of patients who can’t find a doctor, even with the Valley’s array of health facilities. Local hospitals and clinics are frustrated, too, as they try to meet patient demand without compromising patient care.

It’s nothing new that smaller cities and rural areas find it difficult to compete with the amenities of major metropolitan areas for medical professionals. The Yakima Valley, with its proximity to Seattle, Portland and Spokane, faces particular challenges in that regard.

On the flip side, housing costs are much lower than in major cities, the pace of life is slower, and traffic congestion exists mainly getting to and from schools and rarely disrupts most commuters. The Valley does offer an increasing number of dining and entertainment options that appeal to professionals, and four-season outdoor recreation lies in our backyard.

There is some help on the way. Yakima’s Pacific Northwest University of Health Sciences, Washington State University’s new medical school in Spokane and expansion at the University of Washington are increasing access to medical schools for state students, especially those who reside east of the Cascades.

But that flow of new med-school graduates is backed up at a serious bottleneck: a limited number of residency training spots. Financed by Medicare dollars that Congress capped in 1997, the number of residencies remains flat, and hospitals that sponsor residencies tend to focus on lucrative specialties, not primary care. Residencies allow med-school graduates to practice medicine under physician supervision, and doctors are more likely to practice where they have completed a residency; this local shortage puts the Valley at a serious disadvantage.

A solution at the federal level falls on Congress; efforts to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act are more geared toward insurance access and cost containment, and don’t appear likely to address the residency issue.

So what else can be done? One approach is a coordinated effort to recruit medical professionals, as advocated by Rhonda Hauff, chief operating officer of Yakima Neighborhood Health. Hauff told the Herald-Republic, “Maybe we need to have a collective communitywide recruitment campaign that we all share on: ‘Why the Yakima Valley is such a great place to come and practice medicine in’.”

This seems to be a practical way to go. If the respective medical, business, agricultural, educational and governmental communities can come together on a strategy, that effort could persuade providers that this is a good place to live and work. Such cooperation — which helped bring the medical school to Yakima in the past decade — itself could be a selling point for the community.

Observers say the physician shortage is actually not as severe as in previous years. That’s a step forward, but more is needed to improve the health and welfare of the Yakima Valley, and a solution needs to involve the entire community.

 

• Members of the Yakima Herald-Republic editorial board are Bob Crider and Frank Purdy.

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