For every one doctor who goes into an underserved area, four head for places that are already flush with physicians.
Catherine Dower, associate director for the Center for the Health Professions at the University of California, San Francisco, provided that sobering statistic at a Tuesday night forum at the Bakersfield Museum of Art.
The event posed the question, "Does Bakersfield need more doctors?" and the answer seemed to be, "Yes, but that's not all."
The forum touched on the need for more physicians locally, what can be done to attract doctors to Kern and how health care can be molded to make the best of the shortage.
The gathering was put on by Zocalo Public Square, a Los Angeles and Phoenix-based project of the Center for Social Cohesion at Arizona State University and the New America Foundation. The California HealthCare Foundation underwrote the forum, which marked Zocalo's second event in Bakersfield this year.
Dower and her fellow panelists, Kern Medical Center CEO Paul Hensler and San Joaquin Community Hospital Vice President Jarrod McNaughton, shared their experiences wrestling with the scarcity of doctors in certain areas before an audience of more than 50 people.
"We know that there is a distribution problem, a significant maldistribution problem I would say, and it's getting worse," Dower said.
But Dower said there's more to the issue than trying to calculate exactly how many doctors or nurses are needed in any given population. It's also important to look at new models of health care delivery to meet growing demand, particularly in primary care, she said.
Dower shared an example of a high-tech rural clinic she visited in Colorado that relied on physician assistants and nurse practitioners to help make up for a lack of doctors and telemedicine to arrange consultations with specialists.
In Kern County, training and recruiting physicians are big challenges, Hensler and McNaughton said. The dearth of medical professionals extends to nurses, therapists and technicians as well, Hensler pointed out.
One way to address the issue is to encourage and support local youth in pursuing medical careers, Hensler recommended.
"They need to be aware of the health professions. They need to understand that with hard work and reasonable intelligence, there are many avenues for them to get there," Hensler said.
McNaughton said applicants the hospital considers are "exponentially" more likely to come to Kern if they are from the area.
Quality of life is another factor that impacts the local doctor shortage. Attendees pointed to Bakersfield and Kern's lack of culture and health appeal as detractors that drive physicians away. Hensler said that problem often arises with job candidates who are initially interested in a position, but their keenness wanes when their spouse discovers information about poor air quality or valley fever while researching the region online.
"Some of these things I think are even cyclical. When you don't have ... good sidewalks, when you don't have bike lanes, when you don't have attractive parks, that also affects the health status of the population," he said.
Dr. Michelle Quiogue, president of the Kern County chapter of the California Academy of Family Physicians, found Hensler's thought particularly poignant.
"If we're not a healthy place to live, how are people going to come and choose to raise their families here? If we all work on building a better community then people will naturally want to come live here and work here," Quiogue said.