By ROBERT PIERCE
• Daily Leader
If a bond issue is passed on March 2, Liberal’s Southwest Medical Center will be looking at upgrades of about $17 million, and hospital president and CEO Norm Lambert said part of the need for those improvements is to attract new physicians to the community.
Lambert said reality says nothing happens at a hospital without doctors.
“A patient can’t come to us or be admitted to the hospital, or we can’t do an outpatient test without the doctor ordering it,” he said. “The doctors are kind of the lifeblood of the hospital.”
Lambert said the most critical issue facing SWMC is a shortage of doctors in Liberal.
“Every day, we hear of patients who are leaving town to go somewhere else to find a doctor, particularly for a primary care doctor,” he said.
Lambert said along with that issue comes the need for patients to have access to doctors.
“The doctors are so busy here right now that they don’t have room for a lot of new patients,” he said. “This is the first place that I’ve been that I’ve heard Medicare patients complain that they cannot find a doctor. I’ve heard that from some other types of insurances before, but never Medicare.”
Lambert believes this is a sign of the times.
“There’s a shortage of doctors all over the country,” he said. “There’s a shortage of doctors in Kansas. We’re competing with a lot of communities out there to get new doctors to come here.”
Lambert said having a patient travel to another community for medical services is a loss not just for SWMC, but the community as a whole.
“Most patients don’t go off to Wichita and only go to the doctor,” he said. “They probably have to go to the mall and someplace else, too. They spend other money in Wichita that they could spend here. The economic impact of losing patients from our community is not just for health care. It’s for everybody.”
A concurrent issue to the lack of physicians could likely become worse in the near future, according to Lambert.
“Fifty percent of our doctors are 60 years of age and older,” he said. “One-third of them are over 65. That makes our critical need even worse.”
Lambert said this means older patients will be the first affected by the doctor shortage. These, he said, are the Medicare patients.
“There already is an issue now,” he said. “For them to have access to health care in the future, it’s only getting worse unless we do something now. A lot of what we’re doing with this project is to give us that competitive edge to try and recruit doctors to the community.”
Lambert estimated in addition to Liberal, 28 other Kansas communities are currently trying to recruit primary care physicians.
“That means that they’re competing with us,” he said.
A lack of state-of-the-art equipment and procedures likewise leads to a doctor shortage, according to Lambert.
“A lot of those hospitals have added new facilities to help bolster their image, but also provide the services that the outpatients need, the physicians need, and they’ve attracted physicians,” he said of medical centers in urban areas, the communities where most physicians receive their training.
Lambert said the proposed project will provide modern and convenient facilities to help attract, recruit and retain doctors.
“We’re excited about it because it’s going to provide a 21st century look, provide the 21st century facilities for the convenience and safety of the patient,” he said.
Lambert put the doctor shortage in numbers when he estimated SWMC had a staff of as many as 40 physicians in recent years. That number, however, has shrunk to as little as 30, but Lambert said there are two new doctors coming on board this year, and at least three more are needed to meet the area’s medical needs.
“All of these physicians that are here now are independent physicians,” he said. “We don’t have any involvement in their practices.”
Lambert said nevertheless, plans need to be made for when the doctors currently on staff retire, some of whom have practiced medicine for as many as 40 years.
“I care about my patients. If I retire, what’s going to happen to them?” he said of questions needing to be addressed before a doctor leaves their practice. “They’ll come to me, and say what can we do to improve this? We need to be thinking ahead.”
Lambert said this needs to be done well ahead of the time the doctor plans to retire.
“It doesn’t take 30 days to recruit a physician,” he said. “Depending on the specialty, it can take a couple years sometimes.”
Lambert said the Medicare problem will be addressed with the hospital’s new policy, starting with the two physicians coming on board this year.
“With any new doctor coming in, part of our requirement of them when they come in is they take Medicare patients,” he said.