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New Mexico needs more Dr. Nelsons

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Dr. Mark Nelson opted to become a primary care physician in New Mexico after his girlfriend got a job here. Quality of life, including a partner's contentment, are key factors in a doctor's decision where to practice, say recruiters. (Marla Brose/Albuquerque Journal)

Dr. Mark Nelson opted to become a primary care physician in New Mexico after his girlfriend got a job here. Quality of life, including a partner’s contentment, are key factors in a doctor’s decision where to practice, say recruiters. (Marla Brose/Albuquerque Journal)

Dr. Mark Nelson is a hot commodity. He’s young. And he’s a primary care physician.

And that’s the kind of health care provider needed in New Mexico, which is facing a 200-plus shortage of primary care physicians and overall has the oldest population of physicians in the nation.

Nelson moved to New Mexico this summer to follow his girlfriend, who landed a job here in the health care field.

With four months as an internal medicine specialist with the Presbyterian Medical Group in Albuquerque, Nelson is already a patient favorite, his colleagues say.

He worked a year at a Denver hospital but wanted out.

“I knew all along I wanted to do primary care,” Nelson said last week. “I wanted to be around people I could get to know in a setting where I could build relationships.”

Nelson typifies what recruiters and other health care professionals say draws physicians to an area and keeps them there.

Competitive pay and a good work environment help, say New Mexico health care industry representatives. So does a loan repayment program that can ease the burden of a medical school debt that can reach as high as $600,000.

Dr. Mark Nelson, who practices internal medicine for Presbyterian Health Group in Albuquerque, examines Viola Garduno of Albuquerque at a family practice facility at 8800 Montgomery Blvd. NE. Primary care physicians like Nelson are in short supply both here and nationally. (Marla Brose/Albuquerque Journal)

Dr. Mark Nelson, who practices internal medicine for Presbyterian Health Group in Albuquerque, examines Viola Garduno of Albuquerque at a family practice facility at 8800 Montgomery Blvd. NE. Primary care physicians like Nelson are in short supply both here and nationally. (Marla Brose/Albuquerque Journal)

“If we had more state loan repayment dollars available, it would allow us to be much more competitive with other states (that are also looking for primary care physicians),” said Jerry Harrison, executive director of New Mexico Health Resources Inc., which recruits health care providers to the state.

But quality of life and support for a physician’s significant other in the community are also important, Harrison said.

“There’s a lot of focus on a physician or a dentist who comes to town, but what about the whole family and how they fit in or don’t fit into the community?”

Harrison said that, in the quest to recruit a health care provider, his nonprofit organization will sometimes try to find employment for the provider’s significant other.

This spring, the organization begins a one-year retention project in Grants, which has experienced high turnover of physicians.

“Very often what happens with health professionals because they’re so busy, particularly if they go to smaller communities, their lives are wrapped up in seeing patients and, if their significant others are unemployed or underemployed, or not engaged as well, there is a reality of isolation that occurs.”

Having community support can help ease that isolation, Harrison added.

Nelson grew up in the small city of Sterling, Colo., northeast of Denver, but was drawn to Albuquerque.

“For a big city, it seemed like it has a low number of providers. There’s just a ton of need here.”

New Mexico, with its climate and geographic attributes, can sell itself, Harrison said.

But, as additional incentives, a private foundation in Lea County recently partnered with the University of New Mexico and a local hospital so medical school residents who do part of their residency in Hobbs get free room and board.

One hospital in southern New Mexico offered to pay a whopping $500,000 for a general surgeon some years back.

And various communities in more rural settings have passed local tax increases to build clinics and other facilities to bring health care practitioners closer.

Last week, Nelson met with patient Viola Garduno to discuss the results of recent medical tests.

Asked how long he planned to work in New Mexico, Nelson said he’s here, “hopefully long term.”

Garduno added after her visit, “I hope he stays.”

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