“The handwriting is on the wall, with the aging workforce, that we’re going to need to do something,” said Lou Carmichael, CEO of Variety Care, a community health center that operates clinics in four rural areas.
“The communities that support those providers really understand that and usually they do just about anything they can to keep their doctor in town or their nurse practitioner or whoever,” Carmichael said. “It’s an economic problem as well as an access problem.”
About half of Oklahoma’s population lives in the Oklahoma City, Tulsa and Lawton areas, but two-thirds of its doctors practice there, Pettit said.
Telemedicine, in which specialists video-conference with patients long distance, has helped compensate a bit for rural doctor shortages, but overall the state still is in need of more physicians, said Lyle Kelsey, executive director of the Oklahoma Medical Licensure Board.
The shortage has a disproportionate effect on the poor because poverty rates often are higher in rural areas, said Carmichael.
Each of the rural Variety Care clinics was opened after its respective community, faced with a lack of health resources, approached Variety Care.
Carmichael said to improve the health of Oklahomans, efforts cannot be focused only on urban counties.
“It’s easy sometimes to focus on the big urban areas, but really the rural communities are where an awful lot of Oklahomans live and so it’s really important for us to keep that at the forefront,” he said.
Oklahoma Watch is a nonprofit organization that produces in-depth and investigative journalism on important public-policy issues facing the state. For more Oklahoma Watch content, go to oklahomawatch.org.