DIGGING DEEPER: Shortage of rural Ob-Gyns create health risks for expectant mothers

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MADISON (WKOW) — A lot of planning goes into having a baby, but some expectant mothers have to plan their whole day around the drive to see their doctor.

The latest projections from the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) show 26 out of 72 counties in Wisconsin don’t have any Ob-Gyns.

With fewer interested in the field and a growing female population, experts say it will take years to fill the gap.

Sheena Mike is about to have her third child at Divine Savior Health in Portage, the nearest hospital and closest Ob-Gyn to her hometown of Westfield. It’s about a 30-minute drive away, which she calls stressful at times.

“When I had my first child, being a new mom, I didn’t know what to expect,” said Mike. “My first contraction, I called the Ob department asking them how long do I wait, how quickly will this progress. I didn’t know what to expect.”

This is the reality for thousands of expectant mothers across Wisconsin. Some have to drive much longer, even hours just for a check-up.

Dr. Brenda Jenkin is the only Ob-gyn covering two counties — Portage and Marquette — and said if something were to go wrong with a pregnant woman, her health is put at risk to drive miles to receive care.

“They don’t sometimes have the amount of time that they need to get where they need to go, and as far as I can see, there are no other hospitals that are within driving distance for an acute problem,” said Jenkin. “That can be a life-threatening circumstance for some people.”

Jenkin said the problem is convincing aspiring doctors to practice in rural areas. Resources are limited, and for UW School of Medicine Ob-Gyn resident students, the job can be isolating.

“As you are training, you’re used to being around these huge teams full of support, for questions, even if it’s bouncing ideas off someone,” said Dr. Alexa Lowry, a medical school graduate from Barron County. 

Lowry grew up in Cumberland in rural Barron County, where she experienced the doctor shortage firsthand.

“If you are in a smaller town you might be the only Ob-Gyn or the only doctor who’s on call at a certain time.”

She’s the second resident involved in the-first-of-its-kind program at the UW-Madison called the Rural Residency Program. It started three years ago and trains medical school graduates for Ob-Gyn practice in rural communities. Coming from a small town, Lowry said the program is a perfect fit.

“I don’t want to work and live in a big place my entire life,” Lowry said. “I want to end up in a smaller place not only because I like that setting but because it’s that close community feeling.”

ACOG statistics show in the last decade Wisconsin added 64 Ob-Gyns but not all of those reach rural areas.

Direct Patient Care Ob–Gyn (WI):

2006 –>  556

2015  –> 620     

Net change: +64

In Congress, President Donald Trump signed Sen. Tammy Baldwin’s bill “Improving Access to Maternity Care Act” as an avenue to identify rural areas in need and fill them.

It has yet to be implemented since it’s the passage last year and will be run through the Health Resources and Service Administration who said it’s a multi-year effort.

“Next step, once those areas are identified, is to work with public health service corps to place recent graduates in these service areas,” Baldwin said. “The incentive is they can get loan forgiveness for student debt and other incentives to be willing to work in a place that’s underserved.”

Rural Residency Program Director Dr. Ryan Spencer said he hopes other medical centers will follow their lead to address this shortage.

You can watch an extended interview with Dr. Ryan Spencer on WKOW’s Capital City Sunday at 9 a.m.

Emilee Fannon

Emilee Fannon

Capital Bureau Chief

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