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Doctor shortage a vital concern for area, official says

July 12, 2002|by DAVE McMILLION

charlestown@herald-mail.com

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. - Having a shortage of doctors in the Eastern Panhandle has a wide range of ramifications, the director of a new Martinsburg-area clinical medical campus said Wednesday night.

Because of the shortage of doctors in the area, it is not unusual for patients to cross the state line into neighboring states for care, said Jay Bonfili, executive director of the West Virginia University Health Sciences Center,Eastern Division.

If that trend is not reversed, it could have a chilling effect on the area's economy, Bonfili told about a dozen people during the first of a series of health talks sponsored by The Station at Shepherdstown.

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When people go to areas like Winchester, Va., for medical care, it is not unusual for them to eat at a restaurant there or shop in some of the stores, Bonfili said.

Or they may decide it's a better place to buy a car or make some other large purchase, Bonfili said.

"The model has to change," Bonfili warned.

While nationally there are about 20 doctors for every 10,000 people, there are only about 9.3 doctors for every 10,000 people in the Eastern Panhandle.

To reverse the trend, West Virginia University is starting a clinical school in the area to train third- and fourth-year medical students. It is hoped that recruiting medical students to the school to finish their education will encourage them to stay in the area and practice.

State lawmakers recently awarded $1 million for the school, a funding allocation that will ensure the realization of the project, officials said. The allocation makes a total of $5.4 million that has been raised for the school.

Students will receive their training at City Hospital, Jefferson Memorial Hospital, the Veterans Affairs Medical Center near Martinsburg, Harpers Ferry (W.Va.) Family Practice Center and an educational facility that will be built on the grounds of City Hospital.

Bonfili said West Virginia University's decision to locate a clinical school in the Eastern Panhandle can be traced to some sobering statistics.

The federal government has recommended that the Eastern Panhandle have 175 doctors, Bonfili said.

It has 114.

The low number of doctors exists at a time of rapid population growth.

The area's population increased 25 percent between 1990 and 2000, Bonfili said.

Berkeley Jefferson and Morgan counties have the highest live birth rates in the state, yet there is no prenatal intensive care unit in the area or other similar types of newborn care services, Bonfili said.

One might think that because there are a lot of young people moving into the area, they may have more healthy lifestyles, Bonfili said.

In fact, many are smokers, lead sedentary lifestyles and have high rates of heart disease, Bonfili said.

"It's really frightening when you think about it," Bonfili said.

Between five and 12 faculty members will teach medical students at the City Hospital facility and the four medical centers, Bonfili said.

Bonfili said he hopes most of the training will be offered by local physicians, who will be paid for the time they spend training.

Bonfili said officials with the school did not see a need to offer complete medical training in Martinsburg because the first two years of a medical students' education is mostly classroom learning. It would have been too expensive to build classrooms here, Bonfili said.

"It's not a bricks and mortar type place," Bonfili said.

Officials at the school hope to lure people into the medical trade through various avenues.

Not only will they be training current medical students, but they will be targeting other potential students as they make their way through the public education system, Bonfili said.

Bonfili said he wants to begin targeting students at the middle-school level by offering them summer programs related to the medical field and keeping them up-to-date on the field through newsletters and e-mail.

At the freshman level in high school, the school will begin targeting minorities and economically disadvantaged students through a program called the Health Sciences Technology Academy.

"It's something that's very exciting and has a good track record," Bonfili said.

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