It’s a problem that’s plagued the Central Valley for decades — getting time with a doctor has beomce a luxury for most residents here due to a concerning shortage. Local medical institutions in the area, old and new, have been working to fill the gap. Some new developments at these institutions are fortifying their mission, as they train more doctors in the hopes of keeping them here.
Going into health care was an easy choice for Sydnie Espiritu, especially after the problems her family has had.
“It would take months before my grandma could even get an appointment for her primary care physician. When we would get there, we would wait for three hours,” Espiritu said. “God forbid you had to be referred to a specialist, that would take absolutely forever to get an appointment.”
Now in her third-year at UCSF-Fresno, the Delano native knows things haven’t really gotten better.
“I had a patient who had been waiting for an appointment a whole year. She was off of her medications for a whole year because she couldn’t get an appointment with us, now her condition is worsening,” Espiritu said.
In Fresno and surrounding Central Valley communities, there are on average 43-to-64 primary care physicians per 100,000 people, according to University of California data. Compare that to the statewide average, which is 72 per 100,000 people.
The deficit equals out to a shortage of around 4,100 doctors from Kern County to Stanislaus County.
Dr. Kenny Banh, assistant dean at UCSF-Fresno, said the shortage worsens when you look at who doesn’t accept Medi-Cal — which is used by more than 40-percent of the population in the Central Valley — and specialty doctors.
“People don’t realize there’s a shortage in all specialties,” he said. “We have a shortage in surgeons, in dermatologists and mental health is decimated.”
Banh helps run UCSF’s San Joaquin Valley Program in Medical Education, known as SJV PRIME. The program looks to fill the doctor gap by recruiting locals like Espiritu, so they’ll take root and practice here.
“If you look at outcomes for where physicians practice, the two biggest predictors are basically where they finish training and where they’re from,” Banh said.
The program started six years ago and is based at UC-Davis. But thanks to a newly attained accreditation earlier this year, it will be full-time at UCSF-Fresno starting fall of 2019. The transfer means training in Fresno went from six months to a year, to at least two and a half years.
“It’s not just about learning to be a doctor, but it’s about learning to be a doctor that can address our health care needs. Our issues here in the Valley,” Banh said.
While UCSF-Fresno has been the longstanding institution trying to help fix the shortage, California Health Sciences University is already helping make a dent. Started in 2012, CHSU graduated its first class this past May from its college of pharmacy.
Of the 62 in CHSU’s inaugural class, 80-percent are already working in the Valley. Kathryn Baeza is one of them, currently interning at Rite Aid.
She’s a Fresno native, she said she wouldn’t be in her current position at all if it weren’t for CHSU being in the area.
“I was a young mom and when the pharmacy school wasn’t here, our options were kinda limited,” Baeza said. “When the pharmacy school opened up, it just happened to be a year after I got my Bachelor’s [degree].”
Most think pharmacists are just filling prescriptions, but as CHSU’s provost Wendy Duncan explains, the scope of pharmacy has expanded over the years.
“In California in particular, there’s a new designation for pharmacists — the advanced practice pharmacist,” Duncan said. “That has the largest double practice. They can even actually prescribe a limited set of medications and enter into collaborative practice agreements with physicians.”
CHSU’s training reach is set to expand itself. Under constructions is their proposed college of osteopathic medicine. Pending accreditation, it’s projected to be done by Dec. 2019 and open for students by spring of 2020.
It would make CHSU the first four-year medical school in the Central Valley.
That’s a distinction the UC-system has been eyeing for many, many years. Gov. Jerry Brown signed a bill in September establishing the San Joaquin Valley Regional Medical Education Endowment Fund. Once it’s filled with $500 million, it will go toward a UCSF School of Medicine branch in the Central Valley. It’s not clear exactly how the money will be raised, though.
That new school would be able to enroll 50 students a class, according to Banh. That means more chances for students like Espiritu to stay and learn — right here at home.
“To be immersed in the community you grew up in is an incredibly special experience that a lot of medical students may not be able to have. It’s just been such a blessing to be so close to home,” Espiritu said.
Check out he other videos on this page to find out more on UCSF-Fresno’s and CHSU’s outreach and educational programs. Many available for high school students.
Here are links for more information on some programs: