Reflecting on the successes and challenges of overseeing two critical access hospitals in a rural county, my thoughts first turn to an obvious topic at hand: COVID-19.
Grim COVID-19 illnesses, hospitalizations and death statistics in Oregon hit an all-time high in September. Thankfully, the numbers have been manageable in the Samaritan Health Services three-county service region and seem to be dropping, for now. I credit a strong collaborative effort between Samaritan, emergency medical services, fire department first responders and county public health departments for our communities’ high vaccination numbers and good compliance with pandemic safety precautions.
Over the past 18-plus months that the COVID-19 virus has raged, I have been beyond grateful for the dedication shown by staff at the two Samaritan Health Services hospitals in Lincoln County. Clinical and support professionals continued to care for our patients with the kindest of hearts and most skilled hands, even while being uncertain and anxious themselves about this unknown disease.
I have been most thankful that the hospital construction project in Lincoln City was completed before the pandemic hit us, and that the Newport hospital project was mostly completed, avoiding any major project delays. These bright new hospitals allow us to care for sick patients close to their homes and families. These hospitals were designed for staff efficiencies and patient conveniences, and include the latest technology and updated medical equipment inside earthquake resilient structures.
When speaking to community members, I hear praise and gratitude for both of these hospitals. I also hear frustrated comments about the seemingly frequent need to find a new doctor when a favorite one leaves. Unfortunately, the days of general practitioners residing in one place for their entire career and caring for every member of your family through the decades is no longer a given (with some wonderful local exceptions, of course).
Nationally, there is a trend of physicians, physician assistants and nurse practitioners to not remain in one place. These clinicians leave to advance their careers or for personal reasons. This trend is compounded locally by the challenges of living in remote and rural Lincoln County. While many of us simply adore this wonderful, wild and beautiful piece of Oregon, living here has its challenges and is not for everyone. Lastly, the pandemic has changed our health care staffing landscape, and this may persist for years to come. Providers are making choices to retire early, move closer to family and friends, or leave medicine entirely, and there are not enough providers in training programs to cover the shortfall.
This is one reason why we are starting our own family medicine rural residency training program in Lincoln County. This training program will begin next summer and train physicians in a rural family medicine specialty within Lincoln County for two of their total three years of study. Research shows that resident physicians are most likely to stay in the areas in which they train and if we train only those interested in rural medicine, we are more likely to retain those who trained in our area.
Nearly 20% of Americans live in rural areas and depend on their local hospital for care yet 130 mostly rural hospitals have closed over the past 10 years. Fortunately, our two Lincoln County hospitals and associated medical clinics are supported by the larger Samaritan system. With Samaritan Health Services’ resources and backing, we are able to continue to offer quality, timely health care close to home, here in Lincoln County.
Lesley Ogden, MD, is the CEO at Samaritan Pacific Communities Hospital and Samaritan North Lincoln Hospital.