In the midst of a severe shortage of family physicians on the North Coast and across the country, the Petaluma Health Center has just been given a tool that will help it recruit more top young doctors.
The federal government recently revised its “health professional shortage area” rating for the Petaluma Health Center, giving it a “19,” the most severe shortage rating for any health center in Sonoma County. The designation makes young doctors and other medical professionals who are willing to work at the health center eligible for federal funds, specialized training and — most importantly — loan forgiveness.
Loan forgiveness could mean the elimination of tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of dollars in crippling medical school debt, said Pedro Toledo, chief administrative officer of Petaluma Health Center. The rating allows the health center to recruit from the National Health Service Corps’ scholarship program.
“The federal government will cover the loans for these individuals if they come to work here,” Toledo said.
Finding new doctors has been difficult for the Petaluma Health Center and other Sonoma County health clinics as they compete with medical giants like Kaiser Permanente, Sutter Medical Group of the Redwoods and Annadel Medical Group. At the same time, demand for doctors is growing as the number of local residents with health insurance has been boosted by President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act.
According to a 2015 report by the Association of American Medical Colleges, the United States faces a shortage of between 46,000 and 90,000 doctors within the next 10 years. The shortage is a result of the nation’s changing demographics, with a growing senior population, and recent changes to the health care system, such as the implementation of the Affordable Care Act.
In Sonoma County alone, tens of thousands of residents have become newly insured through the Covered California health exchange program and the expansion of Medi-Cal, the state’s Medicaid program.
Last year, the Petaluma Health Center recently added the Rohnert Park/Cotati area to its service region with the opening of a new health center on State Farm Drive, on the second floor of Kaiser Permanente’s medical offices in Rohnert Park. The health center also operates clinics at Casa Grande and San Antonio high schools, as well as a small clinic for homeless people at the Mary Isaak Center shelter, in Petaluma.
In total, the Petaluma Health Center serves about 27,000 people and its patient roster is growing because of the opening of the new Rohnert Park clinic, Toledo said. The health center has an immediate need to hire about five doctors for the Rohnert Park site. Overall, for all its sites, the health center needs to recruit another five nurse practitioners, as well as new mental health and dental clinic staff.
“The reason we haven’t grown faster is because of the physician shortage,” Toledo said. “It’s very difficult to recruit primary care doctors at this point.”
Toledo said health care reform has increased the number of people insured, which in turn has led to more hiring and an extremely competitive job market that pits larger health care providers such as Sutter Health and Kaiser against the region’s smaller clinics, which provide primarily care for uninsured and low-income residents on Medi-Cal and Medicare.