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The U.S. could see a shortage of nearly 120,000 physicians over the next 12 years as demand is outgrowing supply, with the stakes even higher in rural areas. One report suggests liberalizing immigration rules to make it easier for foreign-born doctors to work in rural areas, and lawmakers are proposing new inducements for rural physicians.

“We have a number of rural health care providers who are from the baby-boom generation and those providers are now retiring,” said Alana Knudson, co-director of the Walsh Center for Rural Health Analysis. “We also do not have, at the same time, a high number of newly-minted health care providers opting to practice in rural communities.”

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BRISTOL, Va. (AP) — On a field trip to the Birthplace of Country Music Museum, Ashish Bibireddy put on headphones and scrolled through a jukebox of music from an influential 1927 recording session.

Bibireddy and nine other medical students had already been biking and rafting on their visit to rural Appalachia organized by a nearby medical college. But it wasn’t just casual sightseeing; the tour was part of a concerted effort to attract a new generation of doctors to rural areas struggling with health care shortages.

The Quillen College of Medicine at East Tennessee State University is among a small group of medical schools across the U.S. with programs dedicated to bolstering the number of primary care doctors in rural communities.

The schools send students to live in small towns and train with rural doctors. Like Quillen, some also organize outings and cultural experiences to try to sell students on living there after they graduate.

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Health care is expected to become easier to access in rural communities across eastern Washington. More than a million people statewide are facing major doctor shortages. This is happening in rural communities like Douglas, Stevens, and Lincoln counties.

The problem to go see a doctor is drastic. It can take weeks to book an appointment, hours to get to the office, and when you do, for every 10,000 people; there are only 13 doctors available in small towns. The National Rural Health Association says rural doctors are caring for more than double the amount of patients than urban city doctors.

The NRHA says in small towns, there's a greater chance of injury-related deaths, more people have diabetes and heart diseases, and because of a lack of nearby mental health facilities, rural youth are twice as likely to commit suicide.

One health insurance provider, Premera Blue Cross, took big steps Wednesday to help smaller communities across the state. The insurance provider donated $10.5 million to deliver health care, to those who have been struggling just to be seen.

Premera says doctors are likely to stay in the city they where they had their residency. So, half the grant money is going towards establishing new sites for WSU medical residency programs in eastern Washington, where doctors are retiring, without enough new doctors to replace them.

The other $5 million is going towards new equipment, among other advancements, for doctor's offices in rural communities through Empire Health Foundation.

This investment isn't an overnight fix, but it’s a start. The Washington State Department of Health says that the majority of counties in Washington are low-income populations, where doctors are scarce.

Over the next four years, Premera's hopeful their contribution will benefit the 14% of Washington state, that have wide open spaces, but even bigger medical challenges.


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