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State of Health

Rural Oklahoma Faces Critical Doctor Shortage

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BEAVER COUNTY, Oklahoma -

Making sure all Oklahomans have access to medical care is a big challenge for state leaders. We're not talking about having health insurance but just making sure there's a doctor or a hospital somewhere in every Oklahoma county.

That's definitely not a sure thing.

Ginger Dailing is grateful for the medical care she gets in her hometown of Beaver.

"We have amazing nurse practitioners here," Dailing said. "We have had some young doctors, but they don't stay too long."

Right now in Beaver - in all of Beaver County - there is one practicing physician.

"Yes, that's me," said Dr. Gary Mathews, primary care physician.

Dr. Gary Mathews came here seven years ago. He needed a job, and Beaver needed a doctor.

"There's been a rapid turnover of doctors here," he said. 

Mathews is from the area, so he seems content to stay, but still, he's just one doctor, working with three nurse practitioners - handling everything from ingrown toenails at the community clinic to major trauma at the ER across the street.

"The emergency room puts a little pressure on all of us because we see all kinds of cases," Dr. Mathews said. "Not a lot of them, but some very serious cases that none of us were really trained to handle."

Telemedicine helps, but only so much. More serious cases and any sort of surgery require transport.

"You have someone that comes in that is having a stroke, yes, we're able to give them the medicine and ship them on to a stroke center - if the weather permits," said Susan Trippet, nurse practitioner.

Fortunately, the sun was shining last year when Don Brown showed up at the ER with chest pains.

"Within probably three hours they airlifted me out of here to Oklahoma City," said Beaver resident Don Brown.

Brown says he's seen Beaver go from having four doctors in 1980 to one now.

"We need doctors in rural Oklahoma for old people like me," he said. 

The lack of doctors in Beaver County can be an inconvenience. It can also be a real health risk, but that's the way it is in much of rural Oklahoma. In fact, in some places, it's even worse.

According to the 2017 County Health Rankings, two Oklahoma counties - Grant and Greer - have zero primary care physicians. Another eight counties, including Beaver, have just one, and 29 others have fewer than 10 doctors.

Dr. Jack Beller serves on the Physician Manpower Training Commission. He says getting more doctors into rural Oklahoma is critical for the state's health.

"It's estimated that about 40 percent of the people who live in those underserved areas are not getting their proper medical care," Dr. Beller said.

At the same time, rural hospitals are struggling to keep their doors open. Out of Oklahoma's 157 hospitals, 94 are considered rural. As of last year, 42 were at risk of closing. 

"And it doesn't take, you know, but one more provider cut, the loss of a physician in the community, if they retire or move away, that could take them from being on solid ground to being off the cliff," said Andy Fosmire of the Oklahoma Hospital Association.

State leaders are well aware of these problems, but legislative efforts to find a cure have stalled. Of five bills introduced last session, just one passed - requiring that state-funded medical schools give Oklahoma students priority consideration when assigning clinical rotations.

That's hardly a game-changer.

"There are certain advantages to living here," said Dr. Gary Mathews, Beaver County's only physician. 

Beaver's Dr. Mathews just hopes more young physicians will see the upside to doctoring in a small community. He says it took him a while to see the light.

"I really thought I was going to go into research," he said. "Just didn't turn out that way."

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