CLEVELAND, Ohio (WOIO) - Could a doctor shortage be putting your health at risk?
In the middle of the coronavirus pandemic, we need doctors more than ever.
But finding an appointment isn’t easy to find or get to in some rural parts of northeast Ohio.
19 Investigates continues our series Bridging the Great Health Divide.
Just an hour and a half from Cleveland there’s a slower pace of living in Holmes County.
Ohio’s Amish Country is also part of Appalachian Ohio.
For the people who live here, finding a doctor when they need them can be tough.
“A lot of times if you see a specialist, you’re driving an hour to Columbus or Cleveland to find those people that can give you those special needs,” said Mike Derr, health commissioner of Holmes County General Health District.
He said they have no pediatricians, they are about 30 minutes away or more.
And parents have to rely on family physicians to treat children.
“In a small rural community, it’s about relationships. And the stronger the relationship with that physician or that practice, people will tend to get their care, continued care,” Derr said.
Some people may be forgoing that health care, which can lead to bigger problems down the road.
19 Investigates found between 2010 and 2018, Holmes County lost five primary care doctors.
That’s down 31 percent, from 16 doctors practicing in the area, to 11.
Holmes County, with a population of about 44,000, has been designated by the federal government as a “health professional shortage area.”
The county needs about four more primary care doctors to meet the needs of its population.
19 Investigates asked Derr whether he sees any solutions to the doctor shortage.
“Holmes County is pretty unique, we’re one of the higher income earning rural communities in the state I believe. The lowest on unemployment, we typically don’t struggle with a lot of those issues that would make us qualify for those Federally Qualified Health Centers. And that’s a big issue,” Derr said.
He said it’s an issue because they have a hard time recruiting doctors without that federal assistance.
And when they do attract them, this region struggles to retain them.
Once their student loans are forgiven, Derr said they often leave for another opportunity.
To make things worse, some doctors will be retiring soon.
“We’ve got to create a spoke and hub model where we maybe have a center but then we have regional offices that are placed around the county to serve that population. So there’s a lot of need, but it’s going to take awhile to build that infrastructure and bring that workforce in,” Derr said.
He said they’re regularly asking the question, how can we keep doctors here?
“I like to call it the field of dreams. If you build it, they will come. It’s true,” Derr said.
But there is some good news. Holmes County has gained nurse practitioners to fill that gap.
The county only had three in 2010, but that went up to nine in 2019.
You can read more stories about health disparities in rural areas as a part of Bridging the Great Health Divide here.