State facing shortage of doctors and nurses

Posted at: 05/15/2013 5:56 PM
By: Stuart Dyson, KOB Eyewitness News 4


New Mexico's longtime chronic shortage of doctors and nurses is about to get worse.

Two big reasons: an aging population, and more New Mexicans now with health coverage under the Affordable Care Act. It's a bigger workload for a system that's already short-handed.

State lawmakers on the Legislative Finance Committee got a briefing on the problem Wednesday at the State Capitol. UNM Health Sciences Center estimates a shortage of about 2,000 doctors and 3,000 nurses. If you live in one of New Mexico's bigger cities, you probably haven't noticed.

"The urban parts of the state, particularly Santa Fe and Albuquerque and, to a lesser degree, Las Cruces have a much more robust health care work force than the rural parts of the state," said state epidemiologist Dr. Michael Landen.

Other medical professionals testified that nurse practitioners could fill the gap, but they're in short supply too.

Another thing in short supply: money. Doctors here just don't get paid as much as they do in other states, and that includes the money they get from the federal government for Medicare cases.

"Our doctors, for some reason, aren't getting the same pay scale as they do in places like Texas or Oklahoma," said Sen. Stuart Ingle, a Republican representing a big rural district in eastern New Mexico. "For whatever reason you have to have, people want to go someplace where they can make a little more money sometimes."

On top of everything else, 13.5 percent of the state's doctors told a UNM health Sciences survey that they plan to retire or reduce work hours during the next 12 months.

Lawmakers learned another hard truth during Wednesday's hearing - while we need more nurses, we're going to need to educate them better, too, as in more four year bachelor's degrees and fewer two year associate's degrees.

"The nurse of tomorrow is not a nurse like I am today," said Pat Hurst of UNM's Center for Nursing Excellence, who has an MSN degree herself. "The nurse of tomorrow is going to be in a more diverse setting, have more complex patients, have diverse roles and be called on to be a leader in terms of coordinating care."

Lawmakers are looking at proposals for turning out more nurse practitioners and physician's assistants to handle some of the basic health care that doctors currently provide.

"We've got to make sure that we go though in a creative way to find solutions," said Sen. Howie Morales, a democrat representing a largely rural southwestern New Mexico district. "We have to be able to take care of these health care needs, which are going to be continually expanding as the years come forward."

One thing that seems to work elsewhere is recruiting medical students from rural areas. They are more likely to come back close to home to practice medicine. Another idea is to offer medical school loan repayment deals - the state will pay off your loan if you agree to stick around for "x" number of years. Lawmakers will be looking at these proposals and more in the months before next January's legislative session.