Legislation aims to tackle doctor shortage in rural areas of Tennessee

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Posted at 5:36 PM, May 19, 2021
and last updated 2021-05-19 21:32:10-04

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — After years of financial issues impacting emergency care in rural Tennessee communities, new legislation is aiming to bring more doctors to places in need.

Dr. Omar Hamada works at Cookeville Regional Medical Center, and he's a member of Physicians for Patient Protection. This year, state lawmakers passed a bill that provides $5.5 million to help train doctors in rural areas. Dr. Hamada said, "The need is acute."

Most residents train at medical centers in major cities, but if they can train in rural hospitals, they're more likely to stay.

"For example, some counties 100% of the doctors there are 65 years of age or older,” Hamada said, “So the next few years they’re not going to have anyone unless they get replaced."

Developing residency programs at rural hospitals and clinics could be a game-changer.

“So two-thirds of physicians stay where they were trained, and so hopefully we can keep them there, but also add some incentives by loan forgiveness, or some supplemental income," Hamada said.

It can be deadly when patients are forced to drive hours for life-saving care. Hamada said, "I think a big part is advocating early in medical school the need of, and the importance of, primary care training."

While it won't immediately solve the financial struggles related to the closures of rural hospitals, it's a step in the right direction.

"The reasons they close are multi-factorial and related to physician shortages but not only dependent on that. Some of it is also cost and expenses, reimbursements and everything, so I think it would certainly be a first step at helping some of those critical access hospitals open," said Hamada.

According to Dr. Hamada, there are roughly 17,000 doctors in the state. The ratio is 3,000 patients to one doctor, but the bulk of those doctors are located in places like Nashville.