Op-ed: The state of healthcare on the Outer Banks

Published 3:32 pm Monday, June 13, 2022

By Gary J. Hunter, DO

As a provider whose career in healthcare spans more than four decades, the past 12 years of which have been right here on the Outer Banks, I see critical challenges facing my profession, my colleagues and our local community. Our nation currently faces a growing, broad-spectrum labor shortage, which has recently been made worse by the COVID-19 pandemic. Many businesses, locally and nationally, are experiencing worker shortages and the entire Outer Banks feels the effects every day. The healthcare industry is certainly not immune.

I came across sobering statistics recently: close to one in five healthcare workers have quit their jobs over the past two years, according to Kaufman Hall’s 2022 Workforce Report. Combine this attrition with an ever-growing population and the strain on our healthcare system is at a crisis nationwide. The Association of American Medical Colleges estimates that the U.S. will experience a shortage of between 37,800 and 124,000 physicians by 2034.

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What used to be a relatively straightforward process of hiring healthcare workers of all types has transformed into a very daunting, arduous and drawn-out task. Here on the Outer Banks, we face our own unique challenges when it comes to recruiting providers and nurses. Everyone who lives and works on the Outer Banks knows that we pay a premium in some fashion for the privilege of calling this beautiful place our home. In addition to the shortage of providers and healthcare workers, two other major obstacles to successful recruiting in our community are the lack of affordable housing and the high cost of living. When you couple the growing need with both the high cost of living and the serious lack of available housing on the Outer Banks, it underscores the difficulty of attracting and retaining both permanent and temporary physicians, nurses and technicians. These are complicated issues with no quick or easy solutions.

In North Carolina alone, there are close to 3,800 open primary care provider positions, according to PracticeLink, a physician recruitment service. That means locally we’re facing a perfect storm when primary care physicians retire, quit practicing medicine or leave the area.  There are very few available permanent, and perhaps for the first time in history, temporary providers to fill their voids. Our wonderful providers who remain cannot simply pick up their patients because they already have full practices of their own.

Make no mistake, this is a crisis – and not just in primary care but in hospital and specialty care too. Healthcare systems across the U.S. are all competing for providers. Our community, with its challenges, depends on a special person to choose to practice here. Of course, some do come here only to discover after a year or two that the Outer Banks lifestyle isn’t for them and then decide to leave.

Manteo has been my home for going on two decades and I know firsthand that our town is currently experiencing the effects of this crisis. Recently, the Outer Banks Family Medicine practice in Manteo had to inform some patients that, due to their permanent providers leaving the practice as well as temporary providers, they would have to seek care elsewhere. It was a heartbreaking but necessary decision made by a leadership team that has the community’s best interests in mind. That includes not sacrificing quality just to increase the number of providers, even if we could hire them.

It is easy for one to suggest that lofty financial incentives be offered to entice new providers. However, given overall financial realities as well as the fact that healthcare delivery organizations are highly regulated and bound by laws that prohibit this practice, it is not a viable option.

I recently accepted the role of Chief of Staff at The Outer Banks Hospital. It is abundantly clear that even with these mounting challenges, everyone here continues to move forward with commitment and compassion to deliver the highest-quality healthcare to our community. Our administration works tirelessly in partnership with ECU Health (formerly Vidant Heath) and Chesapeake Regional Healthcare to recruit for all open positions and to develop new and innovative healthcare delivery options. In fact, we are in the process of placing new providers in the near future.

The Outer Banks Hospital has even taken the bold step of partnering with community organizations to plan and develop more housing opportunities in Manteo, Nags Head and Kitty Hawk. These partnerships are just one of many examples that demonstrate how the Outer Banks community and the hospital are working together for solutions to assure access to high-quality medical care.

The lack of primary and some specialty care providers on the Outer Banks is the result of several historic occurrences and will require a multi-pronged approach to solve. It will take time and patience, but the medical staff of The Outer Banks Hospital, urgent care centers and community family medicine and specialty practices are committed to you, our patients, friends and family, to provide the highest level of care possible.

Gary J. Hunter, DO is an anesthesiologist and chief of staff at The Outer Banks Hospital. For more on this topic from ECU Health, go to ecuhealth.org/stateofhealthcare/ .

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