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Public Forum Tackles Physician Shortage in Berkshire County

Lucas Willard

A community discussion was held Friday to address the number primary care medical providers available in the Berkshires, and how to attract more to the area.

Berkshire County is similar to many regions across the nation in that there is a lack of primary care physicians. A forum was held today, sponsored by the Northern Berkshire Community Coalition involving community leaders, concerned members of the public, representatives of the state Department of Public Health, and regional healthcare professionals and staff,  to answer questions and talk about how to bring more primary care physicians to the region.

Bonnie Clark, a physician recruiter at North Adams Regional Hospital, said that the rural Berkshires face a challenge unlike other areas of Massachusetts due to its distance from medical schools. She said that a medical student is more likely to want to spend their time in an area more similar to where they received their education.

"They already live where they went to med school, they know the area, they the hospital, and so they end up saying, 'it's much easier for me to stay here and I did my residency in Boston I'm going to stay in Boston'," said Clark. "It's a challenge for us."

Clark said that one key strategy that small communities can adopt is to engage students at local colleges. In recruiting for North Adams Regional Hospital, Clark said she works with some pre-med students at Williams College to keep them interested in healthcare, and provide opportunities to shadow physicians at the hospital.

Eileen Michaels, a national recruiter who works with Harris Brand Recruiting in Niskayuna, New York, also attended today’s forum. She said that the health care world can take a page from some of the efforts made in New York’s Capital Region to attract and retain highly-trained and highly-skilled workers for its blossoming high-tech industrial sector, strategies that include helping the partners, spouses, and children of employees find jobs themselves and become involved in their new communities.

“In the Capital Region, for example, Tech Valley Connect is one organization that was formed to help integrate initially some of the members of the community who were coming along with the high-tech workers that were moving in based on the chip fabrication that was going on. The nanoscience technology," said Michaels. "That model is a model that could work very well in this community, and the seeds of it are already here as you can see from this group meeting today."

Community members who attended the forum were asked to brainstorm their own ideas. Lois Daunis, who works with the Northern Berkshire Community Coalition said that social media could play a role in “selling” the Berkshire region to physicians and their families.

"Social and new and different ways to really get people to see a visual of our area and all that it offers in terms of arts and education, and natural beauty, etc," said Daunis.

But, as the healthcare world changes, and doctors continue to become more scarce, it’s will also become necessary for other health professionals, including nurse practitioners, to take on the role of primary care providers.

That’s according to Dr. Andrew Morris-Singer, a primary care physician and president of Primary Care Progress, a Boston-based advocacy group that promotes primary care.

"In certain practices nurse practitioners and physician assistants are starting to act as primary care providers for certain subsets of patients," said Morris-Singer. "And this is wonderful because 30 percent of patients in certain studies indicate that they'd rather have a nurse practitioner as their primary care provider than a physician. It's all preferences."

Morris-Singer also voiced his support for changing the way patients pay for care, which included moving away from the traditional fee-for-service model, in favor of quality-based purchasing system.

Massachusetts took its first steps in this direction last year when Governor Deval Patrick signed his healthcare cost containment bill into law, which among several initiatives, would encourage insurance companies to adopt value-based payment plans.

Lucas Willard is a reporter and host at WAMC Northeast Public Radio, which he joined in 2011.
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