FOX 11 Investigates a growing doctor shortage in Wisconsin

Dr. Alexa Lowry, left with fellow resident, getting training at Meriter Hospital in Madison. (Dave Duchan/WLUK)

MADISON (WLUK) -- Wisconsin is facing a doctor shortage forcing patients to wait longer for treatment, and in some cases prompting residents to go without medical care. Hardest hit by the shortage are rural communities, like those that dot Northeast Wisconsin.

Dr. Amy Romadine Kratz is one of two family physicians at Prevea Clinic in Oconto Falls. This is a rural community with a population of 2,834. Like many rural areas in the state, healthcare providers are in short supply.

Romadine Kratz says the patients she sees from rural Wisconsin are often older, poorer and feeling the effects of the physician shortagemore so than those in living in bigger cities.

“I think people put things off than in more advantaged situations because I see patients coming in sicker,” said Romadine Kratz.

The shortage is clear. Currently 13 percent of physicians in the state practice in rural communities, where 29 percent of the population lives. The problem is compounded when it comes to specialties like obstetrics and gynecology. In many Wisconsin counties, there are no OB-GYNs.

“Currently 26 of our counties in Wisconsin do not have an OB-GYN and other counties might only have one or two,” said Jody Silva, program director of UW School of Medicine and Public Health’s Rural Residency Program. “It’s a huge problem and maternity mortality is on the rise so it’s something we just can’t ignore.”

The Rural Residency Program began two years ago training medical school graduates for an OB-GYN practice in rural communities, even though the shortage of doctors in this specialty has been around for years.

“Why did it take so long to address this problem?” FOX 11 Investigates asked.

“I think that we’re just becoming more aware and it’s reaching a critical point,” said Silva.

While the program is addressing a problem, the projected shortage is expected to grow to 4,000 doctors in Wisconsin by 2035. The rural residency program funds just one rural OB-GYN physician a year. Residency programs nationwide typically are funding through the federal government but the funding has reached its limit, so more residents can’t be added.

“We have a problem. It’s getting worse, and yet they can’t do anything to change it?” asked FOX 11 Investigates.

“Right,” stated Silva.

Dr. Alexa Lowry is the one medical school graduate selected into the second year of the program. She grew up in Cumberland in rural Barron County, where she experienced the doctor shortage firsthand.

“For a lot of people in my hometown, my family and friends included, they would have to drive an hour, two or three hours sometimes to get to a specialist,” said Lowry.

Lowry is hoping to change that.

“I plan on practicing in a smaller town within Wisconsin in my future,” said Lowry, who will get much of her residency training in smaller communities such as Portage, Ripon and Waupun.

Prevea Health is working to encourage more doctors to practice in rural communities throughout Northeast Wisconsin. It is working with the Medical College of Wisconsin to establish a residency program in Green Bay.

Prevea Health President and CEO Dr. Ashok Rai believes training more residents locally will keep more doctors in the area.

“Statistics show you’re likely to stay in a town that you’re trained in. And we’re blessed to have the Medical School of Wisconsin here. But we have no place for them to get that next step out of training,” said Rai.

Getting doctors in the residency program though may still be two years out.

Rai says a residency program in Green Bay is long overdue. He says the impact for rural patients is particularly bad.

“In some cases, they’ll delay their care or in some cases they just won’t seek care,” said Rai.

Lowry and Romandine Kratz are working to address the rural healthcare problem, despite facing drawbacks of potentially lower pay and professional isolation. They choose to focus on the benefits of being in a small town.

“From my perspective, growing up in a smaller place, I knew that I loved that setting, I like the sense of community you can have in a smaller community,” said Lowry.

“I think we as rural health care providers have to be a voice and say you’re not disadvantaged by coming to a place like Oconto Falls,” said Romadine Kratz.

The doctor shortage concern is not isolated to Wisconsin. The Association of American Medical Colleges projects by 2025 there will be a shortage up to 90,000 physicians nationwide.

In 2017, more than 43,000 medical school graduates registered for placement in a residency program. They were vying for less than 32,000 positions, according to the National Resident Matching Program.

See how the United States compares to other countries when it comes to the number of doctors practices compared to the population:

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