Many health care providers in Cy-Fair have expanded their facilities in recent years to keep up with population growth, but new buildings are only part of the process, according to hospital officials.
Recruiting talented physicians is a top priority for area providers, particularly at major hospitals, such as Houston Methodist’s Willowbrook campus, Cypress Fairbanks Medical Center Hospital, North Cypress Medical Center Hospital and the incoming Memorial Hermann campus in Cypress.
Efforts to recruit physicians to the area have been going well in Cy-Fair, but a large gap still remains between current and ideal physician-to-patient ratios, said Lisa White, director of business development for the Cy-Fair Medical Center Hospital.
“The Cy-Fair community only has 37 percent of the physicians it needs,” said White, citing data from a study the hospital conducts every year through an independent firm. “Even though 37 percent is significant, we have been trending in the right direction. It was not long ago that we were closer to 30 percent.”
Consequences of the shortage can range from physicians feeling overworked to longer wait times for patients to see certain specialists, industry experts said. However, consequences for patients are typically limited to certain demographics, said
Dr. James McDeavitt, senior vice president and dean of clinical affairs at the Baylor College of Medicine.
“If you have insurance and you live in an urban area in Texas, you probably don’t feel the impact of physician shortage today,” he said. “If you don’t have insurance and you live in the wrong place, you most certainly do.”
A statewide problem
The physician shortage can be seen in communities across Texas and is more pronounced in rural areas, McDeavitt said.
Texas is ranked 41st among U.S. states in terms of physicians per 100,000 residents, requiring roughly 13,000 more physicians to reach the national average, according to a 2015 study from physician consulting firm Merritt Hawkins.
“There is absolutely a physician shortage, but it’s not quite so simple as a ‘yes’ [or] ‘no’ question,” McDeavitt said. “The more specific answer is: It depends on where you live and who you are.”
Numerically, Houston is not substantially underserved in terms of physicians, McDeavitt said. However, Harris County is tasked with providing care to growing population of people of lower socio-economic classes who are uninsured or rely on Medicaid.
Roughly 38 percent of physicians do not accept Medicaid across the five largest counties in Texas, including Harris County. The physician shortage can exacerbate the difficulty that uninsured and Medicaid users face when seeking health care, McDeavitt said.
Many suburban areas in Harris County have seen an increase over the past decade in lower income residents in need of publicly funded health care, said Laurie Glaze, who served as founding executive director of One Voice Texas, a network of private and nonprofit groups working to ensure health needs for all Texans. Glaze retired from the position in June.
“Even in areas like Cy-Fair, as our community pushes out beyond Beltway 8, we’re seeing a much greater need for community services,” she said.
Both McDeavitt and White noted it is generally more difficult to recruit primary care physicians than specialty physicians. However, the primary care base has kept up with population growth so far in Cy-Fair, but the need to keep recruiting is continuous, White said.
“For some specialists, there may be a week wait, but if you need to get into a physician office, you can in this community,” she said.
Initiatives to recruit more physicians to Cy-Fair will be crucial given population growth projections, White said.
Health care providers have been working more closely with educators to help fill the gap as well. Baylor began a partnership with CHI St. Luke’s Medical Center in Houston in 2014 to connect students directly from the medical pipeline into the workforce.
The biggest hindrance on the education front can be tied to a lack of funding for residency training programs, McDeavitt said.
“We’re training more students, but we do not have more residency spots [in which] to put those students,” he said. “Unless we and other academic institutions can expand our residency programs, we lose the benefits from the expanded classes.”
Federal dollars for residency slots have been frozen since 1997, but the state is stepping in to fill some of the need. Grant funding worth $53 million was set aside by the 2015 Texas Legislature, and is playing a role in adding hundreds of new physician residency training slots across the state, according to the Texas Medical Association.
Baylor has applied for funding to add slots to its program and expects to hear back within weeks, McDeavitt said.
“Assuming we get money, we would be in position to open up a new residency program within the year,” he said.
The topic of limited residency slots also came up during a discussion with U.S. Congressman Kevin Brady hosted by Houston Methodist Willowbrook Hospital in April 2015. Methodist invited Brady to discuss advocacy issues, including the physician shortage.
Although the grant money from the state helps, advocacy at the federal level remains a priority for industry experts.
Physicians coming to the area have not hesitated to plant roots in Cy-Fair, according to White, whose job involves tracking the shortage and recruiting physicians for the hospital.
Memorial Hermann, which will open a new Cypress hospital off Hwy. 290 in spring 2017, has seen Cy-Fair’s appeal firsthand. After announcing plans for the Cypress hospital, a number of employees at the system’s other Greater Houston area locations put in requests to transfer. More than 250 jobs will become available when the hospital opens next year.
White said the Cy-Fair Medical Center Hospital spends a lot of time working with new graduates, both from within the region and out of state, who are looking for a place to build a practice.
“People are starting to get the word about Cy-Fair, the low cost of living and the school district,” she said. “Generally speaking, the market sells itself.”