Doctors Ordered

Kootenai Health is looking to North Idaho's future in its new Family Practice Residency program

The doctors are coming! The doctors are coming! We've been warned for years that a shortage of doctors threatens the future of our country's rural areas, and Idaho is definitely rural, in every sense of the word. So a pending doctor shortage has been on the long list of potential catastrophes for local folks to worry about in the middle of the night.

Fortunately, the board and staff of Coeur d'Alene's hospital, Kootenai Health, have taken a bold but wise step to avoid a medical wreck in our corner of the state by initiating a family practice residency. This means that, as an affiliate of the University of Washington Family Practice Residency Network, Kootenai Health will immerse medical school graduates in a three-year program of classes and practice, from which trainees will emerge as full-fledged, certified family practice doctors.

We will need this infusion of medically savvy blood, because our present doctors are growing older by the day. Right now, one-third of the family doctors in North Idaho are over 55 years old, with a large number of those over 60. To attract more medical students into family practices, the Affordable Care Act, which many of us welcome with loud applause, establishes measures to improve the compensation of primary care physicians.

The goal of the family practice residency program is to "establish a highly desired, competitive family medicine residency program which develops and nurtures compassionate, competent physicians."

Kootenai Health has built a brand-new, multimillion-dollar three-story clinic building in the hospital complex. One story of the new space is being devoted to classrooms and study space for the medical residents. The decision-makers at Kootenai Health consider this $3.2 million expense to be an investment in the future, as a hospital cannot exist without doctors. Kootenai Health will also cover the $1 million yearly budget it will take to finance the program.

Records show that 50 percent of doctors who train at a residency hospital remain in the area. On the average, each doctor creates seven jobs that bring $1.3 million a year to the local economy.

Doctors, like money, are not grown on trees. The child who says "I want to be a doctor when I grow up" faces a long, arduous and expensive path. Most drop off along the trail. They experience brain-taxing science and math courses through four years of college, then three years of medical school, paying tuition and living expenses, all the while piling up a heavy debt. The graduate who walks across the stage to receive a handshake and a medical school diploma still faces more years of study and practice.

This is where the Kootenai Health Family Practice Residency comes in. Each year, Kootenai Health will accept six newly minted doctors who choose to go into family medicine. That means at its full capacity, 18 doctors will be at some stage in their residency program in Coeur d'Alene. The first class of the chosen six will begin this July.

Kootenai Health did a good job marketing the attractions our area has to offer to potential doctors. Pictures on the Kootenai Health website feature beautiful downhill skiing over powder snow in the winter and boats skimming over Lake Coeur d'Alene in the summer, as well as attractive downtown stores, schools and restaurants.

Planners, led by program director Dr. Richard McLandress, have assembled an experienced faculty to lead the courses covering pediatrics, adult medicine, obstetrics, cardiology, oncology, emergency medicine, general surgery, geriatrics, urology and community health. It's an intimidating list that covers a wide range of medicine, since family practice doctors have to know how to handle most medical situations.

To top off the appeal of Kootenai Health, the connection and support of the University of Washington Medical School, one of the finest in the nation, adds shine and substance to the Coeur d'Alene hospital.

For all these good reasons, Kootenai Health received nearly 400 applications from medical school graduates wanting to come to North Idaho.

Of those 400 applications, 60 men and women were singled out to be interviewed and courted throughout the winter as possible recruits for the six coveted slots. March 21 was the magic day across the country for computers to match new doctors and their residencies.

The admission process is now complete. Soon the six members of the freshman class of the new Family Practice Residency will be introduced to the public. Because they will assist existing family practice doctors, community members will be a part of the teaching experience.

By all accounts, the new doctors are enthusiastic about launching their careers. At the same time, they're highly idealistic about the helping role a doctor plays in patients' lives. They are eager and rarin' to go.

Help is definitely on the way. ♦

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