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Great Health Divide: Rural communities in the Ozarks lack physicians

Updated: May. 17, 2021 at 3:40 PM CDT
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EMINENCE, Mo. (KY3) - We dive deeper into the Bridging the Great Health Divide.

There’s a nationwide shortage of doctors. In rural Ozark counties many call it a crisis. According to the data in some counties like Shannon, Carter and Iron, there’s only one physician in each county or one for every 6,000 people.

For Susan Norris in Eminence, it’s another busy day.

“Our hours are 8 a.m. - 4:30 p.m. We are here until we’re done,” she said.

Norris is a Nurse Practitioner who treats broken bones, Hepatitis C and everything else that walks through the door. A doctor is here only on Thursdays.

“Always need more doctors here,” said Dr. John McCormack with 41 years of practice. He’s semi-retired working two days a week between Shannon and Carter clinics. He’s hanging his hat up for good in a few weeks.

The area while rich in beauty and scenic views is unique with a long list of challenges. There are higher rates of poverty, unemployment and chronic diseases compared to the rest of the state.

“People don’t have the means to do the right thing for their health. A lot of times they’ll delay care because they can’t afford it. So when they come in, they’re already sicker than most people you’d see in a regular practice,” said Dr. McCormack.

Missouri Highlands needs to hire at least two physicians. Recruitment is an uphill battle.

“There’s still the stigma that goes along with being in rural Missouri,” said Karen White, CEO Missouri Highlands Health Care.

Doctors here can make up to $50,000 more compared to city doctors. There are sign-on bonuses, thirty-plus vacation days and potential $100,000 in student loan forgiveness.

“I think our offering right now is $225,000 and we are looking to up that to $250,000,” said White.

Despite the long list of incentives, the jobs openings remain and folks might not get necessary care.

“That’s what’s frustrating. Knowing that you need to fill a need in a community and you can’t get the staff to do so. It’s maddening,” said White.

Norris wants full practice authority.

“I see patients here four days a week with no one else here. I’ve taken my boards. Passed my test. I’m a competent provider,” she said.

Right now, nurse practitioners in Missouri must work under a doctor. If that requirement is removed, she says more people would have access to care. In the meantime, she’s doing her best to make it work.

“I love this place I just want to stay here. I believe the Lord sent me down here. I believe it with all heart,” she said.

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