Wouldn’t It Be Great To Have Enough Doctors for All Ukiahans?

I don’t know if you’ve heard, but there’s a non-profit group working to start a family medicine residency (doctor training) program in Ukiah. While this may not appear to be closely tied to real estate, I’d argue it is, because anything that substantially improves the quality of life in our town also improves real estate prices. And a residency program would definitely send positive ripples throughout our community.

Health care has been in the news a lot during the past few years, with concern about the rising cost of health care for everyone—insured or not—and the shortage of doctors.

In Ukiah, we do not have enough primary care doctors to care for everyone. Primary care is the term used to describe whole person health care, not specialized care focused on a certain body system or disease. Within primary care, there are different specialties, including family medicine, internal medicine, and pediatrics. Primary care doctors are the doctors you go to first when you’re sick, if you’re lucky enough to have one.

Family medicine is unique in that it is the only specialty that does not narrow its practice by organ/system, age, or gender, according to one of the nationally (and internationally) known leaders in family medicine who is interested in little ‘ole Ukiah, professor Richard Roberts, MD, JD. A pediatrician, for example, focuses on children. An internist focuses exclusively on adults. An obstetrician/gynecologist may provide some primary care, but only treats women.

At a talk he gave in Ukiah recently, Dr. Roberts said, “[Family practitioners] think about people, not the disease.” He appreciates working with specialists when they are needed, but estimates that family practitioners can usually take care of “90-95 percent of what walks through the door.”

In Ukiah, we have far fewer primary care doctors than we need, and many of them are getting close to retirement. Chief of Staff Dr. Charlie Evans, a family physician who works in the Ukiah Valley Medical Center (UVMC) Emergency Department, shared startling news when he said, “We need 42 primary care doctors, and we have 28—9 of whom are over 65.” This equates to approximately 40,000 local people who don’t have a primary care doctor, and who therefore put off care until they either need emergency care or until their disease progresses to the point where treatment is no longer effective or available. Clearly, we need to do something.

This is where the residency program comes in. After doctors finish medical school, they are trained in a specialty, like family medicine. Statistics show that a huge percentage of residents (50-80 percent) stay close to wherever they finish their residency. These new doctors get comfortable with the area, build relationships, and their children get established in local schools.

Recognizing the value of such a program, Dr. Mimi Doohan—who recently returned to Ukiah after growing up here—spoke with Dr. Evans and suggested the possibility of starting a residency program. They spoke to UVMC president Gwen Matthews, who loved the idea.

Since then, the hospital and its parent company, Adventist Health, have agreed to house the program, and offered a $100,000 matching grant to go toward the $1.5 million start-up costs. A group of community-minded locals called Family Medicine Education for Mendocino County (FMEMC) have been busy publicizing and fundraising. Once the residency program is up and going, it will be self sustaining because it will qualify for federal funding after its first year—four years from now.

I sure like the idea of having enough doctors for local people, and since we are in a nationwide competition for them, let’s tip the scale in our favor. Let’s get this residency program up and running.