Commission explores strategies to improve Perry County healthcare

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, January 2, 2007

Much like teachers, the Black Belt is desperately short on physicians. But unlike educational personell, there are no loan forgiveness policies in places like Perry County to help recruit people to fill this need.

At Thursday’s meeting of the Black Belt Action Commission’s Provider Access Subcommittee, new recruitment methods and other basic needs were discussed to bring facilities and physicians to the Black Belt.

Several factors contribute to their difficulties in physician recruitment and securing facilities. Frances Ford, Health Care Coordinator for Sowing the Seeds of Hope, said she was grateful to Gov. Bob Riley for expressing interest in building a dialysis center in the area, but there was still one drawback. A lack of population because of differing zip codes, Ford said, hurt the projects chances.

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“Some of our counties residents have another counties zip code,” Ford said. “Some of that has been changed in the past year, but there are some problems with that in data collection.”

The numbers also affect recruitment of general physicians, Ford said. The group estimated a minimum of 24 patients per week was needed to keep an office afloat.

Ford felt this number could be reached if people were able to get to the doctor. She said they were in discussions with a service to make this possible.

“We have been working with West Alabama Public Transportation and we have been talking to them about services, not just in Perry County, but all over the Black Belt,” Ford said. “After the gas prices went up, that plan was put on hold but transportation continues to be a problem for our residents.”

Samford University has a contract with the Perry County Health Department on several programs to provide blood pressure screenings and other services once a month. They recently began a weight management clinic, which Dr. Charles Sands III with the Department of Pharmacy Practice, Samford University, said could lower the need for physicians through prevention.

“I think this is going to do very well,” Sands said. “This is a service that is needed and we have had some good results so far.”

The school also began a pharmacy residency program locally, Sands said, to help their students gain experience.

All ideas at the meeting were not geared toward helping younger medical personnel gain experience. One suggestion for recruitment involved bringing in physicians who may be closer to retirement. Recruiting experienced doctors would take out the factor of looking for sufficient schools. Many Black Belt communities are better served as retirement communities, which would be an excellent opportunity for doctors nearing the end of their careers.

Dr. John Wheat, University of Alabama Professor of Community and Rural Medicine, said this could bring a whole new angle to recruitment.

“That could twist the whole approach of what we may look for,” Wheat said. “There could be people you know in a hunting club from Montgomery, Birmingham or Tuscaloosa and this may give a whole new idea for a practice. This could be a whole new way of thinking.”

Wheat said the best thing they could do was put together a community campaign to get the ball rolling.

“It is going to take one community such as Marion campaigning,” Wheat said. “It will take one community hanging in there and saying we are going to do whatever it takes to get where we need to go.”