Panel: We need doctors

Western Colorado Days of Action presented a panel of local primary care doctors who discussed their perspectives on these difficult issues, from their positions on the front line of health care. L-R Michael Prmenko MD, Warren MacEvoy PhD of Colorado Mesa University,Deborah Stetler MD,Kay Ramachandran MA, CEO of Marillac Clinic and Craig Gustafson MD provided additional expertise on systems issues. The free event was held Thursday, Feb. 22 at the Grand Junction City Hall Auditorium.

A panel of health care experts discussed the difficulties in having enough doctors for Mesa County patients and providing quality health care at a discussion Thursday evening.

In the 90-minute session, organized by Western Colorado Days of Action, panelists answered questions about what is working well, what is most frustrating and how to improve access to health care.

MarillacHealth CEO Kay Ramachandran, one of the four panelists, noted that about 60 percent of patients who visit her clinic are on Medicaid and lamented that it's difficult to attract doctors to the area. One physician position is still open a year after a doctor moved on from the practice.

"I had no idea how difficult it would be to attract a physician here," she said.

Reasons vary from lack of job opportunities for spouses to a shortage of new doctors looking at primary care as a specialty.

Another panelist — Craig Gustafson, founder of Appleton Clinics — pointed out that as doctors come out of medical school with hundreds of thousands of dollars of debt, a specialty field where a physician can make more money becomes more attractive.

Gustafson's practice operates outside of the insurance realm and offers patients a monthly membership fee where members can see their doctor more frequently and doctors see nearly 50 percent fewer patients per day on average.

Deborah Stetler, a retired psychiatrist who moderated the panel, noted a 2016 study that showed that 49 percent of doctors are burned out due to seeing too many patients and filling out an inordinate amount of paperwork for insurance companies.

As Colorado Mesa University Computer Science Professor Warren MacEvoy discussed the role artificial intelligence and computer science can play in the future, Primary Care Partners Executive Director Michael Pramenko discussed some possible solutions in the short term.

Pramenko said hiring more nurse practitioners and physician assistants to free up doctors could help. But in the long term he believes addressing what he called "social determinants" could have the most impact.

"We need to engage people to encourage healthy behaviors," he said. "We have, right now, a society that is putting things in your body that are not good for you."

That topic — which looks at the environments in which people are born, live and work — seemed to strike a chord with some audience members, including Tanya Travis.

"That's a new concept to me. I'll spend some time thinking on that," she said.

About 30 people, including several who work in the health care industry, took in the panel discussion. Stetler said the main objective was to get more information to the public and encourage conversations between potential patients and doctors.

"We are trying to start a dialogue in the community," she said. It seems the main parties don't often have a chance to talk.

Western Colorado Days of Action often hosts panel discussions on a variety of social issues throughout the year in seeking to create a dialogue between experts and the public. Previous discussions have included topics such as the baby boomer impact on health care and the Affordable Care Act.

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