WKYT Investigates | Endangered doctors creating primary care problems in Kentucky

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LEXINGTON, Ky. (WKYT) - Who do you go to when your child is sick? Who do you see when a pain or sickness won't go away? For many of us, that's always been the family doctor. But there's a crisis in primary care in this country, and in Kentucky, that threatens that special, doctor-patient relationship.

Dr. Michael Eden and older family doctors like him are in critical condition these days.

"Well it's scary because I'm already seeing it now," Eden says.

What he and family doctors across the US are seeing is a very troubling trend. Older family doctors are retiring or dying. At the same time, more patients who are older and sicker are walking through the door, requiring more time and care. Add to that, the avalanche of paperwork is growing and eating up the doctor's time.

Dr. Robert Bratton recruits new family doctors at Lexington Clinic.

"You know, we're seeing a lot of health care providers that are just burned out," Bratton says, "They're being asked to do more and more, in less and less amounts of time, and it's very difficult."

Dr. Bratton is facing an enormous challenge. It is estimated in the next seven years, the US will need 52,000 more family doctors.

"It's staggering. It really is. There is a great need for primary care physicians, particularly family physicians," he says.

The problem is fewer medical students are choosing to go into primary care and instead opt for higher-paying specialties. The average medical school student is graduating with $200,000 in debt.

"Some private colleges of medicine are much higher than that," Dr. Andrew Hoellein, Associate Dean for Student Affairs at the University of Kentucky College of Medicine says.

Facing that kind of debt, medical students know primary care doctors are not at the high end of the income scale.

"We are at the low end of the totem pole as far as physicians are concerned in regards to reimbursement," Eden says.

Dr. Hoellein says in the 1990's 50 percent of medical school students chose primary care. Nationwide it's now 20 percent, but he says this year UK will buck that trend with 43 percent going into primary care residency programs. Kentucky needs them. The Commonwealth could use 1400 more family care doctors, mostly in rural areas.

"We're trying to restore the joy and pride in primary care," Dr. Hoellein says, "We've been faced with having to see patients very quickly, sometimes every 15 minutes. There is lots of paperwork and other barriers, and that can run us down a bit."

Picking up the slack is the growing number of physician assistants. They spend less time in medical school than a doctor, but they can handle a wide range of health issues.

"Orthopedic injuries, gynecological exams, sick visits, family medicine, high blood pressure, diabetes, so it really gives you the opportunity to flex your muscles." physician assistant Erica Millay says.

"Without them, we wouldn't be able to see nearly enough patients, Eden says, "Even at this point with them helping us out, we struggle some days to get everyone in."

Dr. Hoellein says, "I try to be a role model as much as possible. And so do many of my wonderful colleagues here, to show what it's like to be someone's doctor, to be that go-to person, that person who's with them for many years, that celebrate the small joys of improving blood pressure or diabetes and is there to comfort them when they need it as well."

The UK Medical School is expanding across the state. A two-year medical school is open at St. Clair Medical Center in Morehead, UK's Bowling Green campus opens this summer, and next summer UK Northern Kentucky will start taking medical students. The hope is new, primary care doctors will train in those areas of the state and practice medicine there.

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