Study on Doctor Shortage Disputed

By Katie Doyle
Boston University Statehouse Correspondent

BOSTON — Community hospitals are experiencing a severe doctor shortage, according to a new study, but leaders of local hospitals say they have yet to experience tough times, citing location as a key factor in attracting family practitioners, neurosurgeons and other specialists.

According to the Massachusetts Medical Society survey, the state’s community hospitals are having difficulty attracting doctors. Ninety-four percent of those hospitals are reporting “significant difficulty in filling vacancies,” compared with 7.3 percent of teaching hospitals.

But Angela Strunk, manager of marketing and public relations at Lowell General Hospital, said while the hospital is not immune to problems in recruiting certain kinds of doctors, it has had “solid success” acquiring primary-care physicians.

Strunk added that Lowell General has also had “strong success” in recruiting other hard-to-find specialists, such as in urology and general surgery. She said physicians were attracted to the “vibrant and growing market close to Boston,” as well as the strength of the new combined organization following its merger with Saints Medical Center.

The study surveyed medical executives and 8,052 physicians.

Executives at the community hospitals listed lower salaries, high cost of living and lack of interest as contributing to the difficulty in recruiting. Asked which specialty was most difficult to fill, the community hospital executives listed family practice, neurosurgery and internal medicine as the top three.

Western Massachusetts is more affected by the shortage than other areas of the state. The western region reported a 47.8 percent rate of “significant difficulty to fill vacancies” compared to 17.4 percent in Boston and 29.3 percent in Worcester.

A growing and aging population will live longer than previous generations and will develop more chronic diseases, contributing to the demand, according to the study.

Dr. Richard Nesto, chief medical officer at Lahey Clinic, the Burlington-based nonprofit health-care organization, also credits the hospital’s location for attracting candidates in specialty fields and in primary care.

“Lahey Clinic is fortunate to have a high-quality health-care system in a geography where we need our specialties, so unlike Boston which has five or six big medical centers, we’re fortunate in having a very strategic location where doctors do want to come here,” he said.

Nesto said 2011 was one of the clinic’s best years in patient growth, with a relatively low physician turnover rate of 6 percent, most of whom left due to personal circumstances, not job dissatisfaction.

“If you’re a new patient at Lahey Clinic, we guarantee an appointment within 48 hours if you want to see a doctor,” he said. “The more patients we get, the more stable our doctors feel as far as their job satisfaction.”

Christine Schuster, chief executive officer at Emerson Hospital in Concord, said the hospital has also amped up its efforts to increase patient access to physicians, who can be hard to recruit when there aren’t enough patients to accommodate full-time positions.

Schuster said recruiting primary-care physicians also has been a challenge, as less doctors go into primary care and others are gravitating to a “whole new world” of hospitals, general-care physicians who work exclusively in a hospital.

But Schuster said the issue has not yet impacted patient care, thanks to the services of mid-level care providers, such as physician assistants and nurses, who are working more hours. Schuster said the primary-care groups in Emerson Hospital’s area have expanded hours into the evening, as well as through the weekend, in order to make sure patients can get a same-day appointment.

“Now you may not get into see your primary-care doctor, but there will be a physician’s assistant or a nurse practitioner that can see you and make the determination whether they can treat or whether you do need to go in to see a physician,” she said.

She said the hospital has not had much difficulty recruiting candidates because the communities surrounding the hospital’s home base in Concord are very attractive places for physicians to live, work and raise a family.

“Our location is our best-selling asset,” she said.

Material from State House News Service was used in this report.

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