Your Health: Study finds the availability of primary care doctors in Northwest Colorado is higher than in other rural areas

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Northwest Colorado residents have more primary care doctors to choose from than do residents in most other rural parts of the state.

The Yampa Valley also is better equipped to handle a projected rise in Medicaid patients in the coming years because of the impacts of the Affordable Care Act.

That's according to a new study from the Colorado Health Institute that examined the inventory of primary doctors statewide.

But there is room for improvement.

On the doctor to resident ratio, Northwest Colorado still lags behind the state average and is only barely on the list of regions with the best ratios.

The study looked at health care regionally, and found that in Routt, Moffat, Jackson and Rio Blanco counties, there is one full-time equivalent primary care physician for every 2,080 residents.

It compares to a ratio of one physician for every 2,471 residents in the region encompassing Eagle, Garfield, Grand, Pitkin and Summit counties, one of the regions ranked as being the “worst” in the state.

Denver County had the best ratio with 1 physician for every 1,348 residents.

The study defined a full-time equivalent primary care doctor as one who holds at least 40 hours of clinical care each week. Some counties only have one or two qualifying doctors by these standards, or even none in some cases.

When you look at primary care doctor availability on a county-by-county basis, the results tell two different stories in Routt and Moffat counties.

According to an analysis from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, there are 24 primary care doctors in Routt, 1 for every 977 residents.

In Moffat, there are seven, or 1 for every 1,974 residents.

These data sets are different from the ones used in the Colorado Health Institute report because they do not distinguish between part-time providers.

Jennifer Riley, chief of marketing and business development for The Memorial Hospital in Craig, said she was unclear about how the statistics designated the primary care available in Moffat County but that the area certainly is not hurting for doctors.

“I think that our community is well-served, and we went through a time when we had a shortage of physicians, but we have good capacity currently,” she said.

Riley also mentioned that Craig and Moffat County were given the federal designation of Health Professional Shortage Area in 2007 by the Bureau of Primary Health Care, a status that allowed greater recruitment through special programs like loan repayment for doctors fresh out of medical school.

The HPSA designation since has been rescinded as Moffat has continued to improve the amount of physicians within its borders and beyond as Craig doctors travel to other counties and vice-versa.

Similar efforts would benefit other parts of the state with a poor doctor to resident ratio.

“We're hoping the people in these regions who are close to the issues can take these numbers and figure out what are the possible strategies to make sure we have the right care in place to serve our populations,” said Rebecca Alderfer, a senior analyst for the Health Institute.

Alderfer said the Health Institute embarked on the study in part because of the expected changes from the Affordable Care Act.

With more residents projected to get health insurance, policymakers were asking where the health care coverage gaps in the state were.

“I'm guessing our next question will be, what does this mean in the future?” Alderfer said.

Lisa Brown, the CEO of the Northwest Colorado Visiting Nurse Association, said the report confirms a strength of the region.

“Right now, availability for physicians in Routt and Moffat is very good,” Brown said in an email. “The strengths are the community has a full spectrum of primary care physicians to see kids through seniors in all income levels.”

Brown said the greatest need is to “keep supporting these doctors to meet needs that extend beyond their offices both for higher cost specialty care and specialized services.”

So why are primary care doctors more abundant than other rural areas?

It's due to a variety of reasons, according to Brown.

“All partners in the Northwest Colorado Community Health Partnership have treated access to care as a priority,” she said. “The diversity of private practices, Community Health Centers and hospital practices allows for very good access. We also have a balance of being a desirable place to live that isn't as unaffordable as some comparable communities.”

To reach Scott Franz, call 970-871-4210, email scottfranz@SteamboatToday.com or follow him on Twitter @ScottFranz10

Contact Andy Bockelman at 970-875-1793 or abockelman@CraigDailyPress.com.

Ratio of population to primary care physician full-time equivalents, by health statistics region

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