NORTH ADAMS -- Officials at North Adams Regional Hospital say they’re not surprised by the latest findings of the annual Massachusetts Medical Society Physicians Workforce Study, which for the seventh year in a row shows a critical shortage of primary care physicians in the state.
The study also reports more than 94 percent of community hospitals reported significant difficulty in filling vacancies, compared with about 7 percent of the state’s teaching hospitals reporting similar difficulties.
"The shortage of primary care physicians is one of the biggest issues in the state. The reality I see every day is reflected in this report," Bonnie Clark, who recruits physicians and specialists for Northern Berkshire Healthcare, the hospital’s parent company, said Monday. "We have a hotline, "Find a Doctor," that gets calls every day from people needing a primary care doctor."
Dr. Jonathan Cluett, the hospital’s medical staff liaison, said the hospital is not only aggressively recruiting physicians, but it’s also aggressively pursing mid-level professionals -- physician’s assistants and nurse practitioners to address some of the shortage.
"We’re also looking to have collaborative relationships with other health care organizations around us, in particular, Berkshire Medical Center, to address our some of our needs," he said. "We’ve had a collaborative relationship with BMC for about three or four years in the areas of urology and cardiology. We’re hoping to expand that relationship to other specialties in the future."
NARH also has relationships with Baystate Medical Center, UMass Medical Center, Albany Medical Center and Southwestern Vermont Medical Center.
The study also found that in the four labor markets of Worcester, Springfield, New Bedford-Barnstable, and Pittsfield-Western Massachusetts, it was harder to fill vacancies than in Boston. The local labor market of Pittsfield-Western Massachusetts was reported to have the greatest struggle when filling vacancies.
Clark said some of the challenge when recruiting for the hospital is finding physicians who are the "right fit" for the community -- doctors who intend to stay in a rural community.
"I get at least two calls a day from agencies looking to place ‘locum tenens’ primary care doctors," she said. "It’s great for the doctor, who gets to travel around the country, but for our community, we need primary care physicians who will stay for more than a month or two."
She added, "In most cases, we’re not only recruiting the physician, but their spouse as well. We need to make sure the spouse can find a fit for their career as well. We’re recruiting the whole family."
Cluett said that while finding the right match can be a "double-edged sword," making the pool of applicants much smaller, it also has its upside.
"For the most part, physicians who want to work in a small rural community like ours are looking to make a life here," he said. "They don’t come here for a year or two. They are looking to settle down and develop a career. Obviously, physician retention is foremost on our mind and it’s much easier to retain a physician for their entire career, than try to replace physicians every few years."
Changing how health care is provided through collaborations with other health care organizations is key to continuing quality care, Cluett said.
The study -- based on surveys of practicing physicians, department chiefs of teaching hospitals, and medical staff presidents of community hospitals -- found seven of 18 specialties to be in critical or severe shortages. That’s one fewer than in 2011.
"This year’s study has mixed results," Dr. Richard Aghababian, president of the medical society, said in a release.
Shortages in internal medicine, psychiatry, urology and neurosurgery met the study’s criteria of "critical." Three other specialties were classified as "severe"-- family medicine, dermatology and general surgery.
The medical society also found what it called "mixed results regarding the recruitment and retention of physicians in the state."
Officials at community hospitals said the biggest hurdle in filling positions is a reluctance on the part of doctors to work at small hospitals given the high cost of living in Massachusetts and the lower salaries paid at community hospitals.
Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.