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Doctor physician patient

Tara needed a sports physical and vaccination in August. In February, her dad scheduled a preventive visit and her mother had her mammogram. In March, her brother developed an ear infection. The following August, her grandmother was diagnosed with high blood pressure.

All of them went to the same doctor, a family physician, who trained in a Teaching Health Center — a physician training program based in a local community that analysts say is an essential tool for increasing access to primary care physicians and addressing the maldistribution of doctors in rural and underserved areas.

Since their inception in 2010, Teaching Health Centers (THCs) have been highly successful in recruiting medical students to residency programs in primary care. Currently, 56 THC residencies are training 728 residents in 23 states. In Montana, we have one THC, located in Billings at the Montana Family Medicine Residency. Missoula also has a program, the Family Medicine Residency of Western Montana, but it does not receive federal THC funding.

These programs and their graduates have provided much-needed health services to patients in Montana and to nearly 80 million Americans living in health professional shortage areas. Research shows that more than nine out of 10 THC graduates remain in primary care practice, and more than three out of four plan to work in underserved communities.

That’s important because we know that an increase of one primary care physician per 10,000 people reduces deaths by more than 5%. Patients — particularly the elderly — with a usual source of care are healthier and have lower medical costs. They have better care coordination and fewer emergency room visits, unnecessary tests and procedures. In contrast, those without a usual source of care have more problems accessing health services with delays in necessary care.

Teaching Health Centers’ continued success depends on congressional action. Unless Congress reauthorizes the THC program, federal support ends Oct. 1. Ensuring a robust program to train these young physicians requires a five-year extension and increased funding. This is critical. A Robert Graham Center survey of teaching health centers found that more than six out of 10 THC programs would be unlikely to support residency positions without continued funding. Due to such uncertainty, some programs have slowed their recruiting or closed. The residency in Billings has not done this, but the funding for producing these family physicians makes the process tenuous.

We are fortunate that our Montana senators recognize the importance of training physicians who will serve communities across our state. Consider sending a note of thanks to U.S. Sens. Jon Tester (www.tester.senate.gov/?p=email_senator) and Steve Daines (www.daines.senate.gov/CONNECT/EMAIL-STEVE) for their co-sponsorship of the Training the Next Generation of Primary Care Doctors Act, S.1191.

Please also e-mail U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte (gianforte.house.gov/contact/email) to encourage him to sign on to the House bill, H.R.2815, as he has not yet done so. Write to tell him how important access to well-trained physicians is to Montana.

We are privileged to live in Big Sky Country. Let’s be sure we are all healthy enough to enjoy it. Contact our representatives to tell them you want the THC program to train doctors for you, your loved ones and generations of Montanans to come.

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Amy Matheny, MD, MPH, is president of the Montana Academy of Family Physicians, and lives in Missoula. Robert Stenger, MD, MPH; John Miller, MD, MPH; and Janice Gomersall, MD, also of Missoula, are members of the Montana Academy of Family Physicians board of directors. 

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