Times-News - Our View: Idaho’s rural doctor shortage is a work in progress

At first glance, Idaho’s rural doctor shortage is a dire situation.

A recent report by the Association of American Medical Colleges placed Idaho 49th in the nation for the number of physicians per capita. But progress is being made.

A popular fix for the shortage is to increase the number of residencies in medically underserved areas — a good idea since almost 60 percent of family medicine residents end up practicing within 100 miles of where they completed their residency. But at present, Idaho also ranks 49th in the number of resident physicians per capita.

So we don’t have enough doctors, and we aren’t training enough doctors either. So what’s next?

This week’s Big Story focuses on Idaho’s rural doctor shortage, and it suggests several reasons for hope. One of the reasons is an increase in residency programs. Another is the advent of the internet and social media, which alleviates some of the isolation concerns that often keep doctors from pursuing jobs in rural areas.

But another avenue that must be pursued is opening medical schools in Idaho.

The state’s first medical school — Idaho College of Osteopathic Medicine — is set to open this fall with its first class set to graduate in 2022. That is hopefully just the start.

The question of how to keep smart kids in state after graduation has plagued Idaho for years. But as it stands now, an Idaho native who wants to practice medicine in the Gem State but doesn’t want to take the holistic approach offered by ICOM would need to leave the state, head to Salt Lake City, Reno or Portland for medical school, then return to Idaho after graduation. That’s not a great recipe for keeping our kids in-state.

As the average age of rural physicians in Idaho climbs, the question of who will replace them will need answered sooner rather than later. And in places like Shoshone, where Keith Davis is the only doctor in a county the size of Rhode Island, a doctor is expected to carry a heavy community burden in addition to his role as a physician. He’s not just practicing medicine. He’s a community staple.

Statewide initiatives like loan repayment programs and residency programs are a start for addressing Idaho’s rural doctor shortage. But to fully address the problem, we must also train our doctors in-state.