- The Washington Times - Monday, July 28, 2008

CUMBERLAND, Md. | Maryland’s medical establishment is repeating its dire warnings about doctor shortages in rural areas as two government panels prepare recommendations to the governor and the 2009 General Assembly.

Area hospital officials and physicians recently held a forum at the Rocky Gap resort on the Maryland Physician Workforce Study. The study was released in January by the Maryland Hospital Association and MedChi, the Maryland state medical society.

The study concludes that a shortage of doctors in rural Maryland is likely to worsen significantly by 2015 as older physicians retire and new ones choose to practice elsewhere.

“It’s very worrisome that only about 25 percent of our physicians are saying they want to stay here,” said Dr. Robert Barish, a dean at the University of Maryland’s medical school and chairman of the study’s steering committee. “In part, the No. 1 factor among [new doctors] right now is they want to be close to home.”

The report recommends legislative remedies including higher physician-reimbursement rates by insurers, medical-malpractice reforms and a state loan-forgiveness program to attract young physicians to regions most in need.

Speakers at the Allegany County forum said that the rural-doctor shortage is especially hard on poor and elderly residents.

“When you look at the physician supply, the people who are the most affected are those who are most in need,” said Dr. Thomas Chappell, a Cumberland internal-medicine physician and past president of the Allegany County Medical Society.

Barry Ronan, president and chief executive officer of the Western Maryland Health System, said his hospital is recruiting the same doctors sought by those in Boston, Chicago and New York. He also said the hospital recently ended a six-year search by hiring a gastroenterologist who had about 500 openings from which to choose.

The report states the doctor shortage will be felt most acutely in crowded emergency rooms that rely on scarce specialists willing to work on call. The study urges medical and elected leaders to take “bold steps” to attract and keep clinicians, but it includes no price tag for nearly a dozen suggested actions.

Southern Maryland, with “critical shortages” in 25 of 30 physician categories, or 83 percent, will be hit hardest, the report stated. Western Maryland, at 67 percent, and the Eastern Shore, at 60 percent, are close behind.

In the national capital region, encompassing Montgomery and Prince George’s counties, one in three specialists is older than 60, presaging a surge of retirements. Those counties already have fewer general surgery physicians and residents per 100,000 people than any area in the state but southern Maryland, according to the report. Only central Maryland, encompassing Baltimore city and Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Carroll, Harford and Howard counties, is above the U.S. average of 269 active doctors per 100,000 residents, the study found.

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