Heart, cancer specialists top list of shortages in Southeast Missouri

Thursday, September 18, 2008

America is facing a dire shortage of health care professionals, and Southeast Missouri is not immune. Local hospital administrators agree that they are most in need of nurses and heart and cancer specialists.

Officials at the American Medical Association have suggested that the overall shortage is due in part to aging Baby Boomers who need more health care. At the same time, physicians from the Boomer generation are beginning to retire, leaving Americans — especially their peers — with not nearly enough physicians to go around.

So where are the new, young doctors to replace the Baby Boomers?

Over the last 25 years, the AMA predicted a surplus of doctors, so the United States stopped opening medical schools and began limiting the number of students enrolled. As a result, fewer students are entering medical school today, and even fewer are completing residencies. Those who do graduate may be offered several positions, giving them the option of practicing in the area of their choice. They're more likely to select an area close to home, where the pay is best, or in a thriving community, and not necessarily in the area with the greatest need. Recent studies have also indicated that doctors today are working fewer hours and caring for fewer patients. A combination of all of these factors means that the number of patients in need of health care is rising steadily, while the number of available doctors is on the decline — the opposite of what was originally expected.

The biggest areas of need right now are in medical specialties, particularly cardiology and oncology, as heart disease and cancer are the biggest killers of Americans. According to a study by the Association of American Medical Colleges, the medical field is also desperate for allergists, dermatologists, endocrinologists, geriatric specialists, radiologists and psychiatrists, especially child psychiatrists.

"Locally, we have a shortage of specialty physicians for heart and cancer care," says Steven Bjelich, president and CEO of Saint Francis Medical Center in Cape Girardeau. St. Francis is planning for a new Heart Hospital and Cancer Institute to help accommodate the needs of these patients and bring more cardiologists and oncologists to the hospital.

Jim Wente, president and CEO of Southeast Missouri Hospital in Cape Girardeau, says his institution has been "proactive" in fighting medical shortages by adding new technologies and specialty centers. So far, Southeast has opened a heart hospital, expanded the main hospital and brought new technology to the heart and cancer departments; plans are in the works for a brand-new cancer center. Wente says the hospital is trying to recruit more general physicians and specialists, including RNs, pharmacists, physical therapists, radiologists and lab technicians. The hospital has also opened the College of Nursing and Health Sciences and cooperates with the medical program at Southeast Missouri State University, both in hopes of encouraging medical students to practice locally.

Nearby, at Cape Girardeau's Landmark Hospital, CEO Debbie Sabella has seen an extreme shortage of nurses at both the local and national levels.

"There are always nursing shortages, even though they are fairly easy to hire, especially RNs," says Sabella, an RN herself. However, the problem is not a lack of interest among young people to become nurses. In fact, according to Sabella, there is plenty of interest, but not enough instructors or adequate-sized programs to train the aspiring nurses. To combat this problem, Landmark has been hosting open houses, sending out mass mailings, advertising, and making a presence at job fairs to recruit nurses to this area.

"We're trying to set a good example and be a good place to work," says Sabella. She hopes that word will spread about the quality of Landmark so that more employees will be drawn to work there.

Bjelich has also noticed a nursing shortage at Saint Francis. "Specialty nurses are a prominent shortage, both nationally and locally," he says. "Nationally, the average age of nurses is 45. In 1980, the average age was 40. Within 20 years, it is estimated there will be a 14 percent shortage of nurses around the country." In October of 2007, Saint Francis launched an aggressive recruiting program that brought 122 nurses to the area and continues to attract more.

"Continued growth, recruitment efforts, innovative thinking and committed employees combine to serve as the engine for future opportunities to bring the latest in health care to this region, while maintaining our focus on the importance of physical, emotional and spiritual support for patients and their families," says Bjelich.

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