WAFF 48 Special Report: Doctor shortages in AL

(WAFF) - The American population is expected to rise 11 percent by the year 2030. Yet, the number of doctors isn't keeping pace. Many of you say you're already feeling the frustration of fulfilling a simple request. That request? Finding a family doctor.

It's a common response throughout the Tennessee Valley. A new report from the Association of American Medical Colleges predicts the doctor shortage in the U.S. may reach 120,000 by 2030.

Many of you say you are part of a similar conversation when you call trying to lock down a family doctor.

So, what if you're new to northern Alabama and you want to find a qualified doctor for your family? Where do you even start? The Madison County Medical Society recommends that you use its database of doctors. We tried it ourselves, searching for primary care doctors. Yet, 29 of the 55 doctors listed aren't taking new patients.

Even if they are, often, the wait times can be weeks or months. Most people need to be seen right away. So, they wind up choosing between the emergency room and an urgent care clinic.

Dr. Ross Summerford with Community Urgent Care of Madison talked about the trends he's seeing.

"Sometimes when patients come in, and they're a new patient, I'll often ask them, why did you choose us? A lot of times, they'll say, I tried to get in with my primary doctor, but I couldn't get in until next week. I'm running a fever and I don't want to wait that long," Summerford said.

When Keith Lowe's longtime doctor retired, he decided to try a different approach. Lowe pays $1,650 each year for what's called concierge care. Lowe told us, the money is worth it.

"When I need to get in, I can get in. I have access to him via email, text, telephone," he said.

Lowe said his fee pays for a comprehensive yearly exam, a wellness plan and full access to his provider in Huntsville, Dr. Tobin Fisher.

Fisher said it's a different experience for patients.

"In this type of practice, it's much more relaxed. The patient's not upset because they're behind. If they make an appointment for 9, they know they can make an appointment for something later at 10. They come in, we generally have 30 minutes for each patient," he said.

Fisher used to have a traditional practice with around 4,000 patients. Now, it's more like 400. He says, with fewer patients, everyone is happier. Yet, what if you can't, or don't want to pay an extra $1,600 per year?

Here's another option. Dr. Tim Howard was a primary care doctor for 20 years in Huntsville. Now, he's an executive with Teladoc, a service that allows you to talk to a doctor any time of the day. Howard says, while more people are using Teladoc, it's only putting a small dent in the overall doctor shortage.

Howard said another issue is making the doctor shortage worse. Howard says America's medical system has been flooded with millions of new patients who now have insurance through the Affordable Care Act.

Howard said while it's a positive that more people are insured, the number of doctors hasn't increased by the same percentage.

"So, now they have insurance. But again, if you still have the same amount of providers, and you just add more, you're increasing the numerator but not the denominator, your ratio is much greater," he said.

Howard said using physician's assistants and nurse practitioners have helped with this higher demand, but every doctor we talked with says there is no "one size fits all" solution to this shortage.

Fisher added, "Most of us go into this for the right reasons. Feeling like you did a great job at the end of the day is hard when you have five minutes with a patient. So, the problem is extremely complicated and I don't know that there is a simple solution."

While there isn't a simple solution, Blue Cross Blue Shield is teaming up with UAB's medical school to try and reduce the state's doctor shortage.

During a five-year period, $3.6 million in scholarship money will be offered to students who agree to practice as a primary care doctor in an underserved area of Alabama.

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