Efforts evolve to address state's looming health-care crisis
BY JANET PEARSON Associate Editor
Sunday, June 24, 2012
6/24/12 at 2:43 AM
Close to half of the doctors practicing in Oklahoma are nearing retirement age. A quarter of them are expected to retire in the next five years.
What's more, Oklahoma is the "most challenged" state in the nation when it comes to primary care access, according to a recent report. And we have one of the lowest levels of physicians per capita in the country, according to another study.
All of this is in a state that already ranks near the bottom in overall health, according to another report: 48th. It doesn't get much worse than that.
But it does get worse. In parts of Tulsa, residents can expect to die 14 years earlier than residents in more affluent parts of town, in part because of poor or nonexistent access to health care. Forty percent of Tulsa's population lives in north, east and west Tulsa, but only 4 percent of the region's physicians practice in those areas.
In a nutshell, when it comes to improving our collective health here in Oklahoma, the odds are stacked against us.
What to do? Fortunately, help is on the way. But given how dire Oklahoma's health-care landscape is, we're going to need lots more help in coming years.
Oklahoma's three medical schools are keenly, painfully aware they've got to get more doctors trained soon or the state's health will continue to worsen. Each school has a different mission and focus and each in its own ways is doing all within its leaders' capabilities to get more doctors into the pipeline and then into the field.
The University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center in Oklahoma City serves the comprehensive purpose of training doctors in a large number of specialties to help ensure the right kinds of specialists will be available into the future.
The Oklahoma State University Center for Health Sciences' College of Osteopathic Medicine here in Tulsa is focusing on attracting qualified students from rural areas in hopes of expanding the corps of physicians willing to serve in rural Oklahoma. While 30 percent of Oklahoma's population lives in rural communities, only 15 percent of Oklahoma doctors practice in those areas.
And, the new Tulsa School of Community Medicine, an evolving partnership between the University of Tulsa and OU-Tulsa, will focus on producing doctors who will treat not only patients but take steps to address the poor health status and inadequate health systems plaguing the state.
TU and OU-Tulsa officials last week announced a $30 million gift from the Oxley Foundation, a generous donation that will enable the partnership to put the finishing touches on its plan to start up a new four-year community medical education program.
Initially, the foundation will provide $15 million for personnel and operating expenses. Another $15 million has been pledged as a dollar-for-dollar match that will help support the new school upon its official launch in 2015.
There actually has been an OU-Tulsa medical college here since 1972, providing third- and fourth-year training and residencies for doctors-to-be. In 2008, the OU College of Medicine-Tulsa changed its name to the OU School of Community Medicine to reflect its new mission of producing primary care doctors who treat both patients as well as the community. Once the four-year plan is finalized and launched, it will be known as the Tulsa School of Community Medicine.
A generous $50 million grant in 2008 from the George Kaiser Family Foundation enabled the newly focused school to get off the ground.
In 2009, TU joined with OU in a partnership to provide the first two years of basic sciences for med students, a plan that will enable the students to obtain all four years of their education in Tulsa. Such a partnership between public and private higher education institutions is rare, existing in only a few places in the U.S. That such a unique and productive partnership has evolved to this point in only a few years is an indication of how forward-thinking and innovative our local leaders are.
TU has purchased the Hartford Building at 111 S. Greenwood Ave. to serve as the home for the med school. Fundraising and renovation plans are under way. When it opens, it is hoped by 2015, about 300 medical students and about 80 faculty members will join the growing contingent of regular downtowners.
TU President Steadman Upham and OU-Tulsa President Dr. Gerry Clancy were understandably thrilled with the Oxley gift. "This really cements the partnership," said Upham. "We really need more doctors. And that's fundamentally what we're about here."
Clancy believes the new school's approach to produce doctors "who treat the whole community and not just the symptoms of disease" will "truly make a difference in the lives of countless Oklahomans."
Clancy said all the medical schools in Oklahoma understand how great that need is and are doing what they can to address it. "The recognition is we're well behind in the number of doctors. We are ranked the worst in primary care access. The recognition both at OU and OSU is we need to expand medical school programs."
The changes taking place on the medical-school front in Oklahoma are welcome and sorely needed. Thank goodness for the leaders, dedicated faculty and students at these institutions. Thanks to their efforts, Oklahoma's looming health-care crisis will be lessened somewhat. But they can't tackle the enormity of the problem by themselves. Our elected leaders will have to do their part too. They demonstrated they recognize the need with their approval last legislative session of $3 million for physician training. But that won't go far. Without added funding to put even more doctors on the job, our health maladies - and their related costs - will continue to plague us at every level.
Original Print Headline: Oklahoma's challenge
Janet Pearson 918-581-8328
In parts of Tulsa, residents can expect to die 14 years earlier than residents in more affluent parts of town. CORY YOUNG/Tulsa World file