Bryan Baker’s decision to become a doctor was natural. The Idaho Falls native grew up around medicine.
Three uncles are doctors, along with a brother and grandfather. One sister is a nurse practitioner and another is a nurse.
The Hillcrest High School graduate, 29, attended Brigham Young University-Idaho as an undergraduate.
At that point, after realizing how much he enjoyed anatomy and physiology classes, Baker decided the atmosphere he grew up in could become a career, so he signed up for medical school.
“I enjoyed those classes, learning how the body heals and functions,” Baker said. “And I wanted to do something of service to others, something to allow me to contribute to the community and be part of the community.”
Baker decided to become an osteopathic doctor, which differs from the more-common medical doctor.
Osteopathic doctors are licensed in the state they practice to treat patients with a whole-body approach, taking lifestyle choices, mental processes and other factors into consideration for specific ailments.
Osteopathic doctors also are trained in manipulative medicine, where physicians apply pressure or stretch joints, tendons, ligaments or muscles as a form of treatment.
Baker’s decision to study medicine wasn’t met with an abundance of regional opportunity; there are no medical schools in Idaho; instead he considered the University of Washington and University of Utah.
For osteopathic medicine, there was a school in Colorado and another in Washington state.
He chose the latter: the fledgling Pacific Northwest University of Health Sciences.
The private, nonprofit university in Yakima, Wash., graduated its first class in 2012, and fills a needed role in the region.
“The whole mission is to deliver health care to rural and underserved communities in the Pacific Northwest,” spokesman Paul Bubluski said. “The mission is to recruit from the Northwest, educate and train them, then return them to the communities they came from.”
Baker entered the university with a mind to follow its mission — “It was a reason I chose the school initially,” — but he eventually chose a specialty that’s rare in rural communities: physical medicine and rehabilitation.
Baker will treat patients who suffer from traumatic brain, spinal cord or car accident injuries, strokes and other trauma.
“I just get a lot of satisfaction in helping people, especially taking a really awful situation and finding the positives and some sort of quality of life,” he said.
Though rural regions can’t typically support rehab hospitals, which aren’t often self-sustaining, Baker still wanted to practice in Idaho or Washington.
Local options are limited for medical school graduates seeking a place to complete their mandatory year-long residencies, however.
“That’s a huge problem in the Northwest, especially for the specialty I chose,” Baker said.
There was one residency for Baker’s field in Washington, one in Utah, one in Colorado and zero in Idaho.
So he chose to complete his residency in Indiana.
Though Baker plans to eventually return to the Northwest, Association of American Medical Colleges data shows 68 percent of doctors stay in the state they complete their training in.
That’s a problem for Idaho, which has 184.1 doctors per 100,000 residents in 2011, according to the same data. That was second-worst in the nation after Mississippi.
The private, for-profit Idaho College of Osteopathic Medicine, slated to open in Meridian next year, may partially alleviate Idaho’s doctor shortage, but some still believe residency scarcity will bottleneck the talent pipeline.
The Idaho Press-Tribune reported the new college, which will make use of existing infrastructure at Idaho State University’s Meridian campus, could produce 150 graduates each year starting in 2020. But Idaho only has 42 annual residency openings, which is the second lowest per capita in the nation.
Additional openings haven’t been secured, though the college’s CEO and founder, Daniel Burrell, said the college is offering $5 million in seed money over the next decade to create residencies in the region, the Press-Tribune reported.
The college’s formation is important, Baker said, but he wishes that step would’ve been preceded by the establishment of additional residencies in the state.
“I think the school could be a good thing, but you see it’ll be hard for them to keep students here unless they establish residencies,” Baker said. “There’s still going to be more medical students applying for residencies than spots, and I think that’s a huge problem. “