Fairbanks pinched by doctor shortage

Posted: Friday, March 07, 2003

FAIRBANKS (AP) The small pool of doctors who treat the elderly and the poor in Fairbanks is shrinking.

Two doctors of internal medicine at the largest private health clinic in town, Tanana Valley Clinic, are leaving the clinic.

The clinic, joining at least four other internal medicine practices in Fairbanks, will no longer be accepting new patients in its internal medicine department. Internists are often the primary care physicians for adults, particularly the elderly, who are on Medicare and Medicaid.

The clinic is struggling with the loss of the two doctors.

We see what people we can but we can't replace two physicians who are leaving with the existing staff,'' said Brian Slocum, clinic administrator. There's simply no way that we can see them all.''

The clinic spent $170,000 on doctor recruitment last year, But fewer internists are practicing general internal medicine, said Slocum. These days, they tend to specialize. They become cardiologists, neurologists or gastroenterologist.

Another problem concerns Medicare and Medicaid, federal and state programs that pay for medical treatment for the poor. General internists routinely see patients on Medicare or Medicaid, but the programs pay much less than the normal fees for services. The money paid by Medicare doesn't even cover the costs of providing care, Slocum said.

You can't have a five- or six-doctor internal medicine department if you're writing off 60 to 70 percent of charges,'' he said.

Recruiting doctors is not a new problem in Fairbanks and at least one other clinic has reported problems in the area. Cheryl Kilgore, executive director of the Interior Community Health Center, said her clinic has spent 18 months searching for a family practice physician.

Everybody in town is looking for doctors,'' she said.

Dr. Linda Garcia, one of the two doctors leaving the Tanana Valley Clinic, said she planned to open her own practice and hopes to see more Medicare and Medicaid patients than she sees now. About half her patients at TVC are on Medicare or Medicaid.

I would like to be able to run a frugal practice so that I can provide service to those individuals,'' Garcia said.

Fairbanks Memorial Hospital recently commissioned an assessment of medical needs in the community and found that the lack of internists was the No. 1 problem, said hospital administrator Mike Powers.

About a year ago, the hospital wooed three internists from the community to work with hospital patients exclusively. Powers said meetings are planned at the hospital to discuss the shortage of internists.

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