A longstanding healthcare professional shortage is only expected to get worse as baby boomers reach retirement age, which will likely lead to greater difficulty finding a doctor and longer wait times when a doctor is found.
A commission of state healthcare leaders recently released a report on what it described as a looming crisis.
The group, calling itself the Future Health Workforce Commission, claimed that in the next decade, the state could be short 4,100 primary care clinicians and 600,000 home care workers.
But the crisis has already reached Kern County.
The San Joaquin Valley is one of the least healthy regions of the state, according to the report. This is due in part to a healthcare professional shortage that has existed for as long as some in the industry can remember.
“I’ve been in the Central Valley for 20 years,” said Kern Medical Chief Strategy Officer Scott Thygerson, “and it’s been a challenge the entire time.”
A number of compounding factors contribute to the shortage in and around Kern County, he said.
From difficulty recruiting qualified individuals to not enough teaching slots being available, the healthcare professional shortage cannot be linked to one direct cause.
But one issue looms large.
“There is a supply problem,” Thygerson said. “The country is not producing enough physicians.”
Increasing pipeline programs that lead into healthcare professions will be an important step to addressing the issue, the report says, especially when it comes to people of color, who are underrepresented in medical fields.
According to the report, only 7 percent of healthcare professionals are Latino, despite Latinos making up 40 percent of the state population.
The report recommended the state invest $3 billion during a 10-year period to grow the pipeline in order to reach over 60,000 students.
“That is less than 1 percent of what Californians are projected to spend across the health care system in 2019 alone,” the report said.
In Bakersfield, Kern Medical serves as the only teaching hospital in the city, with 115 doctors in their residency programs and 120 students completing their fourth year of medical school.
Increasing the amount of slots for students through state funding alone may not be enough to fill the doctor shortage, Thygerson said.
“It isn’t just money. You need faculty that are qualified. They’ve got to have an interest in scholarly activity,” he said. “It’s quite a bit of work. You don’t just pop one up.”
He said it would take a concerted effort on the part of the country to help absolve the shortage.
If nothing changes, more and more people could put off treating their health problems through primary care physicians, and the load could be placed on local emergency rooms, leading to worse health outcomes.
“It’s important that people have a relationship with their doctor,” he said. “In order to have that you’ve got to find a doctor.”