There are two pressing issues in rural health care in Utah: a labor shortage and the challenge of training, hiring, and retaining more workers for the future. These issues were discussed by lawmakers during a meeting of the Extraordinary Health and Human Services Committee in St. George on Sept. 18. Heather Ferrill, the Director of Rocky Vista University College of Osteopathic Medicine, presented two maps that highlight the challenge. The first map showed that the majority of Utah counties have a shortage of primary care physicians to meet local needs. The second map showed where graduates from the university’s medical school in Ivins are doing their residency training, with many ending up in hospitals in neighboring states like Nevada and Arizona. Ferrill emphasized the importance of increasing residency opportunities within Utah and called for long-term, continued funding to support this goal.
Masen Smith, a second-year medical student from Rocky Vista, joined Ferrill and expressed concerns about the impact of moving out of state for training on students with families. She explained that the process of relocating with children can be frustrating, and if they wish to return to Utah after completing their training, it presents further challenges. National statistics show that nearly 70 percent of medical students end up practicing medicine in the state where they completed their training, highlighting the importance of retaining these students within Utah. Rocky Vista University is working to build a local pipeline of future doctors through initiatives like bringing medical students to high schools to share their experiences.
Eli Bermudez, the dean of Utah Tech’s College of Health Sciences, informed lawmakers about the efforts being made by the university to prepare rural students for healthcare careers. For example, the university has partnered with high schools in Kanab and Hildale to provide opportunities for these students. However, the limited number of hospitals in southern Utah creates a challenge in accommodating all the students in the program. Bermudez expressed the desire for more growth and emphasized the need to address this limitation.
In addition to the shortage of healthcare workers, the St. George area is facing challenges such as the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and the rising cost of living, making it difficult to retain healthcare professionals. David Blodgett, the health officer for the Southwest Utah Department of Public Health, highlighted the competition his team faces with other medical jobs offering higher pay and more flexibility. This struggle to retain talent is particularly difficult given the department’s wide coverage area and the long travel times required to reach remote parts of the region.
Furthermore, the funding situation for local public health departments in Utah needs attention. Blodgett mentioned that most nationally balanced public health department budgets are split evenly between federal, state, and local sources, with each source contributing about one-third of the funding. However, state funding for his department is only around 1%, making it challenging to provide adequate support. Blodgett called for Congress to establish a minimum level of funding to ensure a solid foundation for health departments.
In conclusion, Utah’s rural health care system faces the challenges of a labor shortage and the need for increased training and retention of healthcare workers. Efforts are being made by institutions like Rocky Vista University and Utah Tech to address these issues, but additional funding and support are needed. The retention of medical students and healthcare professionals within Utah is crucial for the long-term provision of quality healthcare services in rural areas.