The national physician-to-patient ratio average is four to 10,000. In the Mississippi Delta, it’s one per 10,000.
“We have a huge access-to-care problem,” said Karen Fox, president and CEO of the Delta Health Alliance (DHA), an organization created to address critical healthcare and wellness gaps in the Mississippi Delta.
Fox said the alliance is in the process of researching why the Delta has such a significant shortage.
“Most rural areas do not have access to specialty providers, but we do not have enough primary care physicians,” she said.
Fox said it is unknown how new healthcare reform laws will impact the Delta, and she said it’s too early to tell whether federal healthcare legislation will result in an increase in foreign-trained doctors in Mississippi.
However, she said an increase in physicians of any nationality will be important.
“A physician’s place of birth will not matter,” she said. “Whether we have enough of any type of doctor or nurse is what will.”
In Mississippi, more than 20 percent of the population receives Medicaid, and 16 percent receives Medicare. Fox noted that those figures are higher in the Delta, and that the physician shortage isn’t affected by healthcare insurance providers, whether the provider is Medicaid, Medicare or a private company.
“There just aren’t enough physicians, no matter what the insurance provider is,” she said.
“It’s been my experience that the majority of men and women who go into healthcare do so out of a desire to help people,” she said.
Another source, Lynne Cossman, principal investigator for the Northeast Mississippi Area Health Education Center and a research fellow for the Social Science Research Center at Mississippi State University, also said she also doesn’t believe the new legislation will drive primary care physicians away from practicing medicine.
Cossman noted that the healthcare reform bill includes incentives such as increased Medicaid reimbursement rates to primary care physicians for preventative and primary care.
Until provisions in the legislation become regulations, the impact on the Delta won’t be known, Fox said, but she noted that health and well-being are the engines that drive a region’s economy.
“A poor health climate drives a poor economic climate,” she said. “When sick workers increase, not only does the cost of insurance increase, but so do other costs as a result of the decrease in production and services.”
“It’s an endless loop. We are trying to break that cycle,” Cossman said.
To meet that goal, the DHA has programs aimed at education and awareness.
“We’ve found that every additional year of education a person has, their life expectancy increases proportionate to that education level. The more education they have, the better care they’ll take care of themselves,” Fox said.
She cited multiple programs offered by DHA that address healthcare issues such as providing information for patients on navigating healthcare systems, providing physicians with telemedicine access and electronic healthcare records.
Another project is aimed at increasing the number of nursing school graduates who return to the Delta, and DHA offers a program that teaches parenting skills to at-risk families.
“We’re addressing the problem at the root,” she said. “A newer generation of healthy individuals is liable to become more educated. It’s the only way to stop the cycle.”
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