OKLAHOMA CITY, OK – As of Friday morning, April 10, the Oklahoma State Department of Health (OSDH) reported that the state currently has 1,794 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 88 deaths from the virus.
A nationwide issue that has become very evident during this crisis is the apparent doctor shortage. Oklahoma is among the states where it is the most urgent.
Oklahoma is ranked 5th in the nation in the lowest primary care doctor to patient ratio, according to a report from the 2020 County Health Rankings & Roadmaps, a collaboration between the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute.
Normally, the first contact for people with any health issue is their primary care physician. A referral from a general practitioner is often required to be tested for COVID-19, even at drive-through test sites.
On April 1, Gov. Stitt and the OSDH lifted restrictions on COVID-19 testing, however, Oklahoma County still requires a doctor’s referral in order to be tested.
L’Toya Knighten, with the Oklahoma City-County Health Department, recently told KFOR News reporter Chase Horn, “Just because of the sheer number of folks that would show up to the site, to keep the process organized, we are still doing it by doctor referral.”
Knighten said those without a primary care doctor can call 405-425-4489 to be screened.
According to research by the Association of American Medical Colleges, medical institutions have been warning that there could be a shortage of up to 120,000 medical professionals by 2030 nationwide.
“Many of the states with the fewest doctors per capita also have a relatively high uninsured population,” reported Hristina Byrnes, for the financial news site 24/7 Wall Street.
In Oklahoma, 20.8 percent of adults are without health insurance, the second highest ranking in the US, Byrnes said.
Byrnes report shows, with a population of 3,943,079, Oklahoma’s healthcare statistics include: primary care doctor to population ratio is 1 to 1,616, primary care doctors per 100,000 people are 61.9, the total number of ER doctors is 878 (23rd lowest), the 24/7 Wall Street story notes. Adding to the concern, many Oklahomans have underlying health issues such as diabetes: 12.2 percent (9th highest).
According to a new report by Self Financial, Oklahoma has the 14th fewest healthcare workers per capita in the U.S. Oklahoma state has 143,440 total healthcare workers, which equals 3.64 for every 100 residents.
Many hospitals in the state were experiencing financial problems before the COVID-19 outbreak, stated Oklahoma Hospital Association President Patti Davis.
State Rep. Monroe Nichols (D-Tulsa) reiterated that concern when he released a statement regarding the recent furlough of 600 employees from Hillcrest Medical Center, located in his district.
“Over the last few years, we watched rural hospitals close and file for bankruptcy, but that wasn’t enough,” Nichols said. “And now in the middle of a global pandemic, Oklahoma hospitals are having to focus on saving money when their focus should be saving lives. That’s not a failure on their part. It’s a failure on the part of policymakers who let politics blind them from protecting Oklahomans in times of grave need.”
Nichols continued, “For Hillcrest, Medicaid expansion would have meant an additional $20 million in revenue, which would have gone a long way to addressing these furloughs. For Oklahoma, Medicaid expansion would have meant nearly a billion dollars in healthcare funding and hundreds of thousands of Oklahomans having access to affordable healthcare.
“It would have meant more stable hospitals and fewer communities suffering from a lack of providers,” Nichols added.
The New York Times reported this week that the coronavirus has reached more than two-thirds of the country’s rural counties, with one in 10 reporting at least one death.
This week, Mangum, a rural town of 6,000 in southwest Oklahoma’s Greer County, has had four deaths and 32 confirmed cases of COVID-19.
Scott Rains, from KFOR News, reported that the first Mangum death was a 95 year old woman who was exposed to a traveling evangelist, who is believed to have transferred the virus to several residents either during a church service or at the dinner following. The other three deaths were residents of Grace Living Center, the town’s only nursing home.
“You’d think in rural Oklahoma, that we all live so far apart, but there’s one place where people congregate, and that’s at the nursing home,” Mangum’s mayor, Mary Jane Scott said. “I thought I was safe here in Southwest Oklahoma, I didn’t think there would be a big issue with it, and all of a sudden, bam.”
Mangum now has an emergency shelter-in-place order and a curfew like larger towns and cities around the United States.
Recently, Eastern Oklahoma Medical Center in Poteau had to close its obstetrics and surgery departments due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Following that incident, State Rep. Lundy Kiger (R-Poteau) sent a letter to Gov. Stitt asking his help in keeping rural hospitals open during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I understand the state of Oklahoma is obligated to work off the recommendations of the CDC, and this prompted the order to cease all elective surgeries, OB, and many other surgical procedures during this pandemic,” Kiger said in a press release. “This one move alone in the order has reduced most rural hospital’s incomes by approximately 80 percent.
“While ending these procedures is understandable, our rural hospitals still have employees, utilities, services, food suppliers, and supplies and equipment invoices that will have to be paid on a monthly basis.”
Kiger, along with other rural lawmakers, hospital administrators, and staff, hopes that the almost $2.2 trillion stimulus package recently passed by the U.S. Congress would provide funds to help rural hospitals that are on the brink of closure.
However, he’s discovered that the Poteau Medical Center would only qualify for about one-quarter of the proposed $10 million maximum loan amount allowed under the package.
“At this point, our local rural hospital is now within days of closing and/or laying off many more of our finest people that we will likely never get back,” Kiger wrote.
Kiger’s letter stated, “to date, the hospital has been forced to terminate five doctors and two certified registered nurse anesthetists, close a walk-in clinic, suspend a physicians’ bonus program, premium pay for clinical staff and contributions to employee retirement accounts, and reduce over 50 staff in the hospital and clinics, leaving only minimal staffing until the pandemic is over.”
Kiger has implored the governor to give immediate attention to rural hospitals. He contends that the fastest solution is the option of using TSET (Tobacco Settlement Endowment Trust) money that is available right now.
“I cannot leave this important topic to fall through the cracks,” Kiger wrote. “I can’t and I won’t allow this to happen. The turnaround for our Oklahoma hospitals has to happen right now.”
More than 90 percent of Americans said the virus posed a threat to the country’s economy and public health, according to a Pew Research Center poll conducted from March 19 to March 24.
For the entire list of states with the fewest doctors per person click here.
On Friday, Gov. Stitt announced a comprehensive hospital plan, designed to handle any surge in demand on the State’s hospital and health care systems due to COVID-19.
Phase two includes OSU Medical Center in Tulsa and an Oklahoma City metro area hospital, to be announced, will be used as flex sites focusing on COVID-19 patients.
The third phase, if needed, will feature additional facilities constructed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers with assistance from the Oklahoma National Guard.
For more information regarding COVID-19 in Oklahoma County, visit occhd.org/COVID-19.
Story updated on Saturday, April 11, 2020.