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Improving health care in rural communities

Johnson City Press • May 27, 2018 at 8:00 AM

There is no quick fix for what is becoming a crisis in our health care system. U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander said last week the gap between Americans who need health care and those who provide care continues to widen.

"Simply put, we may have too many people and too few medical professionals," said Alexander, who serves as chairman he Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions.

The Tennessee Republican said a number of things are converging to create the problem, with one of them being the nation's population is aging at a time when the number of Americans needing medical care is growing. The need for for additional caregivers is also coming at a time when a number of current health providers are reaching retirement age.

As Press staff writer Hannah Swayze reported last week, a shortage of health care providers could have a significant impact on rural Tennessee, where the National Rural Health Association says there are only 39 primary care doctors for every 100,000 residents. Meanwhile, local hospitals, nursing homes and extended care facilities are having a hard time finding and keeping experienced nurses on their staffs.

Recently, Ballad CEO Alan Levine tweeted that his health system had hired 255 new nursing graduates to help fill 350 open positions. Ballad issued a statement noting the new hires are something to "celebrate given the increasing shortage of nurses and intense competition for nurses."

Indeed, hiring competent health care providers should be applauded. We should also note educating such caregivers is a very important mission, and one East Tennessee State University takes very seriously. In fact, the James H. Quillen College of Medicine was created to educate primary care physicians to practice in rural and underserved communities.

Dr. Reid Blackwelder, chairman of Family Medicine at ETSU, told the Press last week there are two things that can be done to improve health care in rural rural communities — train more primary care doctors to work in those areas and make it less expensive for residents to see those doctors.

ETSU is doing its best to accomplish the first. We are waiting for lawmakers in Nashville and Washington, D.C., to step up to the plate and do something about controlling the costs of health care.

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