Task force recommends efforts to attract doctors

Posted: Wednesday, October 04, 2006

The task force prepared the report for the University of Alaska and the state, recommending that student subsidies could help solve the problem.

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The group concluded that Alaska is well below the U.S. average number of doctors per 1,000 residents, 2.38.

The authors say Alaska needs 10 percent more than that just to meet national care averages because of the difficulty in delivering medical care in the Bush, the high-risk nature of many Alaska occupations, and other unique aspects of the state.

At the higher rate, Alaska should have more than 1,700 doctors, up from the current 1,347, the report said. Over 20 years, with an increasing elderly population, Alaska will need nearly twice as many doctors as it has today, the study said.

The report recommended that Alaska increase guaranteed medical-school spots for Alaskans from 10 per year to 30. The state subsidizes Alaska medical students at the University of Washington through the WWAMI program, which covers Washington, Wyoming, Alaska, Montana and Idaho.

The report also recommended increasing residency positions by expanding training programs in specialties that medical students go into after they graduate.

Alaska has one full-fledged residency program, the Alaska Family Medicine Residency. Those students care for patients at the Providence Family Medicine Center in Anchorage.

It has graduated 55 physicians. The report notes 70 percent of the 55 graduates stayed in Alaska when they finished, the highest rate of return of any graduate medical program in the country.

Alaska could build up that program and start new ones, said Dr. Richard Mandsager, state director of public health and co-chairman of the task force.

The report recommended subsidizing Alaska students who want to attend medical schools other than the University of Washington, forgiving a percentage of their student loans for each year of practice in Alaska.

The report recommends increasing the Alaska experiences of students in WWAMI and other medical schools. Medical students do on-the-job training in various specialties for the third and fourth year of school. More exposure would produce more doctors interested in living here, Mandsager said.

The Alaska Native Medical Center runs a two-month surgical training segment for second- and fourth-year students at the Good Samaritan Residency program in Phoenix. Of seven surgeons on staff at the Native Medical Center, five went to Good Samaritan, said Dr. Frank Sacco, chief of surgery at the hospital. Three other private surgeons in Anchorage went through the program, too, he said.

"It's been a great recruiting tool. The best recruiting tool is for people to come here and see what it's like," Sacco said.

Eventually, the state should consider building its own medical school, the report said.

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