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Katrina displaces thousands of physicians in region

It is estimated that approximately 6,000 physicians along the Gulf Coast were displaced as a result of Hurricane Katrina — the largest displacement of physicians in U.S. history — and it is currently unknown how many might have left for less hurricane-prone regions of the country.

The American Medical Association (AMA) used data provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to come up with the estimate that found 5,944 doctors were displaced in 10 Mississippi counties and Louisiana parishes directly affected by Katrina. More than two-thirds of the doctors were from the New Orleans parishes of Orleans, Jefferson and St. Bernard.

“We don’t know what this is going to mean for healthcare,” said Dr. Thomas Ricketts, who led a University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill study on the issue. “We’ve never had to deal with something like this before.”

Along the Mississippi Gulf Coast, many physicians and their families lived in the waterfront neighborhoods that received the most damage from the wind and waves of Hurricane Katrina. In the aftermath, some physicians were living in their offices, while others were commuting from vacation homes outside of the area in places like Orange Beach and Gulf Shores, Ala.

Singing River Hospital spokesman Richard Lucas said that even though a large percentage of their medical staff at Singing River Hospital and Ocean Springs Hospital were personally affected by Hurricane Katrina with many losing their homes, the hospital has been fortunate to not lose any physicians yet.

“We have lost a few employees, but the number is very low,” Lucas said. “Our employees, medical staff and volunteers have done a phenomenal job before, during and after the storm in providing top quality health care to the citizens of our area, this despite personal losses on many of their parts.”

Some physicians lost their offices completely, and it is safe to say all physicians on the Coast were impacted by patients who were displaced. David Burkhart, administrator of Gulfport OB-GYN Clinic, said obstetrician Dr. Jerry Karabin lost his office in Bay St. Louis. Some of Karabin’s maternity patients had to leave the area to deliver their babies in out-of-town hospitals since the Hancock Medical Clinic was closed due to flooding.

“An enormous number of patients have left the area,” Burkhart said. “We are letting Dr. Karabin practice out of one of our satellite clinics, the Orange Grove Clinic located on Highway 49 North in Gulfport.”

While many patients have left, the Gulfport OB-GYN Clinic has also gained a number of patients due to damages at the hospital at Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi.

“Keesler was affected considerably,” Burkhard said. “They lost a lot of their health facilities. We are seeing a lot of military patients because they have nowhere else to go.”

Gulfport OB-GYN was closed for two-and-a-half weeks after the storm because of the damage. And a couple of physicians have been limited in their ability to practice because of damage to their homes. Patient loads are down about 50%.

“Nothing is the same,” Burkhart said. “An enormous number of patients have left the area.”

Many of the physicians at Biloxi Regional Medical Center (BRMC) lost everything in the storm…homes, offices, vehicles, clothing, said BRMC CEO Tim Mitchell.

“These same physicians continued to care for our patients with their only possessions being what they wore on their back,” Mitchell said. “Despite the various losses, everyone kept working toward a common goal….making sure our patients’ needs were met. We have been very fortunate to be able to provide these physicians with temporary office space until they are able to rebuild.”

BRMC had only one physician resign in order to relocate to another community.

The Mississippi State Medical Association (MSMA) has started a grant program to help physicians rebuild their medical practices damaged by the hurricane.

“We know that many physicians in Jackson, Hancock, Harrison and Pearl River counties have suffered personal and professional losses of enormous proportions, and for those in the later category, we are focusing our efforts on helping them return to practice as quickly as possible,” said Bill Roberts, executive director of MSMA.

Robert said MSMA is soliciting contributions to the MSMA Foundation to establish a program to provide monetary grants to help the physicians. The grants are designed to help re-establish medical offices damaged by Hurricane Katrina with the purchase of equipment, supplies, a temporary practice facility or re-constructing a permanent medical office.

“Since the amount of funds that are available from the foundation are limited, the amount of each individual grant is not unlimited and it certainly will not replace all of the losses which physicians may have incurred,” Roberts said. “Nevertheless, we hope these grants, when combined with other recovery resources that are available, will help them return to productive medical practice as soon as possible.”

Copies of the grant application can be obtained by calling MSMA at 1-800-898-0251 or by going to the Web site www.msmaonline.com.

Contact MBJ contributing writer Becky Gillette at bgillette@bellsouth.net.

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