Growing Farm-Fresh Physicians

2013-05-09 21:48:02

In a time of national doctor shortages, Yuma Regional Medical Center is taking steps to “grow farm-fresh family physicians.”

Six newly graduated physicians – five women and one man – will begin their postgraduate training on July 1, kicking off a new era at the hospital.

The first residency program at YRMC will focus on family medicine, with Dr. James Lenhart at the helm. Recently recruited from Las Vegas, Lenhart is considered a national leader in the field.

Dr. Edward Paul will lead the overall Graduate Medical Education program. Paul previously served as program director of the Family Medicine Residency program at the University of Arizona.

“On the one hand, this is the culmination of a 10-year process to bring the ethos of teaching hospital status to our community,” noted Dr. Stewart M. Hamilton, who retired last year as YRMC chief medical officer.

“And on the other, the start of a journey that will help recruit new blood to the medical staff and help maintain the high standard of medical care that is provided within their ranks.”

The three-year residency program will put the trainees on the their last leg to becoming family physicians and board certified.

“These young doctors have graduated from college, they have graduated from medical school. This residency will be their last step to being able to go out on their own and practice,” Lenhart said.

Addressing shortages

Hospital officials started with family medicine because of the lack of primary care physicians, and in particular, family physicians. They hope to expand into internal medicine and other specialties.

Lenhart hopes that some of the residents will stay in Yuma after their training. “Data shows where residents do their residency is likely where they will practice.”

On average, about 50 percent will stay in the same community, meaning that three graduates will likely stay in Yuma.

“We will be growing our own farm-fresh physicians and ensuring a continuous pipeline of family medicine physicians,” Lenhart said.

A “continuous pipeline” would also address turnover, as doctors relocate, retire or move into non-patient care fields, he noted.

Rural Arizona in particularly is experiencing a shortage in doctors. “In fact, we already have less than half the average number of physicians per capita than the rest of the nation,” Hamilton pointed out.

‘No small task’

Hamilton explained that “it is no small task to enter the field of graduate medical education. In fact, it has been 10 years since the first possibilities were discussed in then-CEO Bob Olsen’s office. Since then, there have been many discussions, meetings and documents generated.”

Once the hospital gave the go-ahead last year, program leaders had to obtain accreditation and federal funding.

Then came multiple visits from medical students interested in completing their postgraduate studies here and finally “the match” – a computerized process whereby student and hospital rank each other based on interest.

The “painstaking” process to find matches started last August, Lenhart said.

The hospital received 800 applicants, interviewed 46 and ranked 33 before whittling it down to the six residents.

The candidates were ranked beyond academics, test scores and advanced degrees. The ability to speak both English and Spanish ranked high on the list.

“Four of the six are fully bilingual. We’re very excited about that,” Lenhart said.

‘Bumps in the road’

Paul and Lenhart also looked at life experiences and “bumps in the road” that could have “matured and cultivated them into much better people,” he said.

They looked at their volunteer record.

“Did they serve in the Peace Corps? Did they serve the underserved? Did they volunteer at a research mice lab or at a homeless shelter? A homeless shelter got more points because it shows dedication to service, humanness. We were looking for caring, compassionate people,” Lenhart explained.

“We’ve very proud of how it played out. We think we got an outstanding group.”

Just the fact that they applied to a new program showed them to be risk-takers, he added.

“Some wouldn’t even apply here. It’s a brand-new program, and Yuma is not what some consider city life.”

On the other hand, some applicants liked that it would be a brand new program and they would have seniority. Some liked the “down-home community” feel of the city.

Change in culture

Lenhart expects the program will “change the culture” of YRMC as he believes the residents will challenge all doctors to improve.

Fresh out of medical school and the university environment, the residents will know the latest techniques and research that they can share with and inspire doctors who have been practicing for several years now.

“It will make everybody step up to the plate,” Lenhart said.

He noted that the program will teach the residents that “health care goes beyond the domain of the physicians’ office. We all have a responsibility to be citizens.” The trainees will be encouraged to volunteer in the community.

The program will also address bedside manners.

“There will be an emphasis on the delivery of a personal, literally ‘hands-on’ type of health care, and good ‘bedside manners’ will be actively taught,” Hamilton said.

“While the theory of bedside manners can be taught in a classroom setting, there is no better way to learn for many of us than to see such care being delivered.”

In addition, teaching hospitals attract qualified physicians interested in teaching, something that Hamilton believes will prove valuable in recruitment efforts.

“(As the) physician shortage rises to a crescendo in the U.S.A., YRMC and Yuma will stand out as a beacon, haven, oasis and jewel of health care in the Southwestern desert while other communities and hospitals will struggle and living standards fall for lack of medical care,” he said.