IN FOCUS: Responding to Wisconsin's OB-GYN shortage

Published: May. 3, 2018 at 11:29 PM CDT
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Statistics show there have been basically no increase in the number of obstetrician-gynecologists trained since 1980 across the country but the population of women has gone up by 26 percent, according to the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG). It is a strain that experts from ACOG said could be crippling; however, the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Medicine and Public Health is working to find a solution to this shortage across the state and nation.

Mom or not, most women seek services from an OB-GYN but providers warn finding a doctor in this department could become more and more difficult for women in rural areas.

"In our state, one out of three counties doesn't have an obstetrician-gynecologist," said UW Health OB-GYN Residency Program Director Dr. Ellen Hartenbach.

The national average is 2.65 OB-GYNs for every 10 thousand women according to information published from ACOG in 2014. In Wisconsin, there are 2.38 OB-GYNs for that same population.

"It's a crisis. We don't have enough OB-GYNs for all the communities in Wisconsin," said Hartenbach. "We need to do something and that's why we decided to start this."

Hartenbach is talking about UW's OB-GYN rural-residency program.

"There are several of my collegues at other universities across the country that are wanting to develop these programs but this is the first. This is the model program," said Hartenbach.

Dr. Laura McDowell is the program's first resident. She is working with and learning from Dr. Brenda Jenkin, an OB-GYN at Divine Savior Healthcare in Portage.

"Dr. Jenkin is the only OB-GYN for Columbia and Marquette County," said McDowell.

They're both from rural areas and enjoy working in smaller communities but said that's not common for most physicians.

"It's more common that young people are going to train in more urban centers. When they begin to look for a job, it would seem common sense to look for a job that has all the resources that you're accustomed to," said Jenkin.

For their patients, the doctors said having a shortage of providers means more travel.

"You cant expect, 'Oh I'll be able to make it two hours to the bigger center.' You just don't know if you have that time," said McDowell.

"I think one of the biggest differences is that, in this hospital, we are a team. We are really a team. I know all of the team players... I know my labor floor nurses really well. I know the ER doctors. It's a little harder sometimes because you don't have somebody around the corner to run things by. You have to be able to stand on your feet and say, 'Okay, I think this is the right thing to do.' Sometimes in the middle of the night it's a little bit harder," said Jenkin.

Hartenbach said with UW's OB-GYN rural-residency program, there is no shortage of applicants.

"We have over 100 applications every year for the one spot," said Hartenbach.

But she said there are barriers.

"The hospitals have to be willing to pay for these positions... Then the second thing is you have to have enough deliveries and enough surgeries to be able to train another resident," said Hartenbach.

There's no simple solution but Hartenbach said one thing is very clear.

"This is everybody's issue this is not just a women's issue. This is an issue for the entire family and the entire community so that these communities can thrive. I think it's pretty central to take care of moms and babies. It's like motherhood and apple pie... We gotta take care of them first," said Hartenbach.

About 80 percent of McDowell's training is in Madison but, along with Portage, she'll also train in Monroe, Watertown, and Waupun. Another resident will start the rural-residency program in July. By 2021, four residents will be in the program.

26 out of 72 counties in Wisconsin do not have an OB-GYN, according to ACOG.

Richland County is noted as an area without an OG-GYN in ACOG's report; however, Chris Drea, the director of community relations and marketing with Richland Hospital, Inc. notes the county has one OB-GYN and five family practice physicians who deliver babies at Richland Hospital.

Senator Tammy Baldwin co-authored bipartisan legislation with Senator Lisa Murkowski from Alaska called the Improving Access to Maternity Care Act. The goal is to identify areas in need of OB-GYNs and provide incentives to get more providers to practice in those areas.

In a statement, Senator Baldwin said the following:

“Too many communities around Wisconsin are still facing a shortage of qualified, maternity care professionals and services. My bipartisan Improving Access to Maternity Care Act will help target resources so providers can deliver the care that expecting mothers in Wisconsin so desperately need no matter where they live. I’m proud to lead this bipartisan effort to ensure that healthier pregnancies lead to healthier babies.”

This special report first aired on CW News at 9 on Madison CW, NBC15’s sister station. The CW News at 9 can be watched on the following channels: Over-the-air on Channel 15.2 TDS Channel 18 Spectrum HD Channel 616 or SD Channel 2 AT&T U Verse HD Channel 1022 or SD Channel 22 Direct TV Channel 16 Dish Network Channel 57