Panel: Residency programs, technology the keys to level rural health care gap

Sep. 19—Quality health care should be attainable no matter what your zip code is, said Walter Panzirer, and residency programs and technology can help level the playing field in rural areas.

Panzirer, a trustee with the Helmsley Charitable Trust, gave the remarks during a Mayo Clinic symposium on rural health care Monday.

He and other panelists started the day by talking about unmet needs in rural settings and how to address them, with Panzirer first offering up residencies as a strategy to draw and retain medical workers in rural settings.

"We know that the physician shortage is greater in rural America; we know the staffing shortage is greater in rural America," he said. "But rural America can be a training center as well."

Panzirer, of South Dakota, has experience as a paramedic and is the grandson of trust founder Leona Helmsley. The trust has supported rural health care providers over the years, including grants for new ultrasound equipment in March to Mayo Clinic Health System's clinics in St. Peter, Waseca and St. James, New Ulm Medical Center, Madelia Health and other providers in south-central Minnesota.

Residencies serve as a way for rural areas to "grow their own" medical workers, Panzirer said. He used an example of a Montana program that the trust helped run, saying about 60% of providers in the program went on to practice in rural areas.

A Mayo program, known as the Mayo Clinic Family Medicine Residency, operates out of Eastridge clinic and has reported success placing residents in rural clinics and hospitals. Dr. Frederic Meyer, Mayo Clinic's College of Medicine and Science dean, said during a panel discussion that a significant number of the college's graduates go on to work in rural settings.

Health care shortages have long been projected in rural areas. A U.S. Health Resources & Services Administration report found 13,578 primary care physicians would've been needed in 2019 to keep areas of the country from being short.

By 2034, the shortage could rise to as many as 48,000 physicians, according to a 2021 analysis from the Association of American Medical Colleges. The association noted Congress added funding for more graduate medical education positions in underserved communities in 2020, but more investments were needed.

To further make health care equitable in rural areas, though, Panzirer said, providers will have to lean on telemedicine and artificial intelligence.

"You can't have a neurologist in every community; it's impossible," he said. "But by using telemedicine, it works."

Panzirer and Dr. Prathibha Varkey, president of Mayo Clinic Health System, took a question from the audience about how medical providers can overcome a feeling of skepticism toward modern technology in medicine.

Varkey stressed the importance of partnerships and dialogue with the community.

"The trust comes with building the relationships and showing outcomes that are helpful to the patient," she said, adding technology evolves and can be implemented over time.

Panzirer encouraged hospitals and clinics to share their success stories. Hearing about great outcomes helps assuage fears, he said.

Follow Brian Arola @BrianArola

Follow Brian Arola @BrianArola