Part 1: Rural areas of Oregon experiencing doctor shortage

Many Oregonians in rural areas don’t have access to a primary care doctor in their community.

Some have to travel hundreds of miles just to receive care.

This week NBC5 is looking into why Southern Oregon is experiencing a doctor shortage and how rural communities are being affected.

Going to the doctor may seem like a standard procedure, but without enough doctors in Southern Oregon it’s a struggle for some to even make an appointment.

“There is no question… that the physician shortage in rural Oregon is very real,” U.S. Senator Ron Wyden said.

According to the Oregon Medical Board, Jackson, Josephine and Klamath counties are federally designated ‘Health Professional Shortage Areas’.

“What that means is that there’s more of a need in those counties for primary providers and specialty care than is readily available in those counties,” Oregon Medical Board Chair Michael Mastrangelo said.

Looking at the licensure numbers for 2016 from the Oregon Medical Board – Jackson County has only one doctor of medicine per 306 people.

For Josephine County it’s one per 486 people, and in Klamath County it’s one per 425 people.

“More rural areas – the Cave Junctions, ya know the Klamath Falls – those places really have a hard time attracting especially primary care physicians,” SOU pre-med advisor Gregory Miller said.

Dr. Gregory Miller is the pre-med advisor at Southern Oregon University.

He says he knows people who have had to wait six to eight weeks before getting into the doctor.

“This is weeks they’re in pain. This is weeks that ya know maybe a condition is getting worse, and those can be very long weeks when you’re waiting to get in to see somebody,” Miller said.

So why are these areas short of physicians?

Miller suggests many qualified doctors move to large urban areas like San Diego or San Francisco that offer a busier lifestyle.

“I think it’s hard when you’re competing against big cities with lots of things to do. Lots of restaurants… lots of different types of stores,” Miller said.

But that’s not to say these rural areas don’t attract anyone.

Miller believes Southern Oregon is a great fit for those who enjoy outdoor living.

“One of my physicians I think specifically was interested in a place like this because of the wild and scenic rivers, because of the national parks, because of the hiking, because ya know the camping around here… the coast in one direction, the desert in another direction,” Miller said.

Miller thinks the first step in helping the shortage is to give students more enthusiasm for science education and the field of medicine at a young age.

Another option the state of Oregon is practicing now is hiring medical professionals from outside the United States to fill the gap.

“If there are not as many U.S.-trained doctors as this area requires, I think you will see medical systems turning to foreign doctors… turning to people that have been trained outside of the United States Caribbean Medical Schools,” Miller said.

Coming up Thursday on NBC5 News at 6, find out how places like rural Oregon are making up for the shortage of doctors.

And learn more about a national controversy that could be keeping more physicians from entering these areas.

NBC5 News Multimedia Journalist Elizabeth Ruiz was raised in Northern Colorado. She graduated from Colorado State University with a degree in Journalism and Media Communication. She also minored in Spanish and studied in Spain. While at Colorado State, she was an anchor and reporter for CTV Channel 11.

Elizabeth loves Zumba dancing, singing and spending time with her family.

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