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Rural areas of NM suffer severe physician shortages

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — New Mexico has an “adequate number” of primary care physicians, but their practices are concentrated in urban areas and that leaves severe shortages in many rural counties, according to a new report on the health care workforce.

The state needs to better recruit and retain primary care physicians in rural areas by expanding financial incentives, in particular, repayment of college loans for physicians who practice in rural areas, the report said.

“With regard to primary care physicians, there is a very huge maldistribution problem,” said Dr. Richard Larson, executive vice chancellor of the University of New Mexico Health Sciences Center.

Bernalillo, Santa Fe, Los Alamos and Chaves counties exceed the national average for primary care physicians per capita, according to the report, issued Oct. 1 by the New Mexico Health Care Workforce Committee.

“That obscures the fact that many counties in the state have severe physician shortages, particularly in the southern and southeastern regions,” it said.

Barring a “redistribution” of physicians to under-served areas, the state would need to add 153 primary care physicians to meet the national average, the report estimated. New Mexico now has 1,957 primary care physicians, it said.

The report also recommends the state bolster the number of advanced-practice registered nurses, who have full practice and drug-prescribing authority under state law.

New Mexico needs to add 271 advanced-practice nurses to the 1,089 who now practice here, it estimates.

The state has taken several important steps to increase the supply of primary care providers in rural areas, Larson said.

UNM this year doubled the number of students enrolled in its two-year program for certified nurse practitioners, to 48 students, he said.

In 2006, UNM started an innovative “BA/MD” program that recruits promising high school students from rural areas in New Mexico and provides them with financial aid as they earn a bachelor’s and medical degrees. A total of 226 student entered the program from 2006 to 2013.

The state this year funded nine residency positions that allow medical school graduates to practice in under-served areas, Larson said. The state needs to continue and expand the residency program, he said.

UNM also requires family practice residents to serve in rural areas for up to two years, he said.

“The more exposure you give a physician in training to a rural area, the more likely they are … to stay there,” Larson said.