The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

November 18, 2012

Just call them ‘Doctor…’

Demystifying Beckley’s medical residents

By Lisa Shrewsberry
Lifestyles Editor

— AccessHealth Family residency program director and longtime area physician Tiffany Thymius, D.O., is an optimist with due cause. She believes the future of medicine is in good hands, and she has the residents to prove it.

Right now, five bright young osteopathic residents (four hailing from West Virginia) are spending their time learning and managing patients under established area physicians, perfecting the human art and science of family medicine in a rural practice setting. Thymius is encouraged by what she’s witnessing firsthand, particularly in consideration of a looming shortage of primary care practitioners nationwide.

“The biggest benefit to our area is, over the course of years, to bring more family practice doctors back to southern West Virginia to practice,” she stated.

General practice physicians have been the focus of a growing deficiency within the health care system over the past decade — a critical lack of primary care doctors who can act as home base for coordinating overall patient care. The lack is of particular concern in rural areas where chronic disease is high and treatment harder to obtain.

Diversifying specialties along with their better pay and hours and decreased administrative responsibilities have routinely enticed medical students away from the time-honored art of family practice. The level of prestige afforded television’s “Grey’s Anatomy” types far outweighs any attention given to the media-anemic old-fashioned country doctor, a cultural backdrop against which many would-be family practitioners are growing up.

With health care changes in the air and the possibility of more Americans being extended health care coverage, family medicine is in particular demand, at a time when fewer exist. The latest news from the American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP) posted this week is that the U.S. will need almost 52,000 additional primary care physicians by 2025 to meet the country’s escalating health care utilization needs.

Projects like the grant-funded AccessHealth Residency Program may be at least part of the answer to cultivating more and better family physicians and helping them bloom where they’re planted.

“There is a greater need for primary care physicians in the community with the aging population we have, but also considering the aging population of physicians,” pointed out Charles Hunt, AccessHealth CEO. “We feel responsible as the leading primary care provider within our community for making sure the resources and expertise needed are around.”

AccessHealth was one of only 11 such model programs in the nation awarded a seal of approval and five years of funding through the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA). It was the only program recognized as meeting full criteria for a teaching health center.

“AccessHealth’s commitment to utilize the grant funding we currently have and, if necessary, to continue the program without funding in the future remains constant,” continued Hunt.

Program residents learn under family physicians within his organization, but they also regularly see patients and learn in cooperation with Raleigh General Hospital.

“When we bring back doctors to train here, we are hoping they come back to stay. We are looking for young medical graduates with a true interest in rural family medicine. What we are seeing is that we are attracting residents who do have ties to the state,” Thymius further explained.

Along with Dr. Rodney Fink, director of Medical Education and Chief Medical Officer for AccessHealth, who, among establishing other safeguards, helps secure funding for the program’s continuation into the future, Thymius works with  Program Coordinator Megan Constantino to organize mentorships and otherwise guide the residents.

“The Residency Program is to teach them medicine and the business of running a practice so they can feel like when they finish these three years, they can come out and set up a private practice or join a partnership and be ready to thrive. That’s our overall goal. It takes lots of people to make that happen.”

Thymius, a 1998 graduate of West Virginia School of Osteopathic Medicine, appreciates schools like her alma mater for maintaining the integrity and numeric force of primary care physicians along with providing bright young talent for the residency program, an advancement she trusts to assist in meeting the expected future physician shortage head on.