A doctor shortage across the nation has Lakeland feeling the pain.

On average, nationally there are 89.6 primary care physicians for every 100,000 residents. In Lakeland, that number is 60.7.

  • Lakeland Regional Health wants to start clinical residency program
  • Hospital getting help from Sen. Bill Nelson
  • Current Graduate Medical Education rules causes problem

The lack of primary care physicians in the area has led to the emergency room at Lakeland Regional Health Medical Center being the busiest single site emergency room in Florida, according to the health system.

"We see the people who just don't have access but need primary care, but we also see people who haven't had any care and it's an emergency when they show up at our door," said Dr. Timothy Regan, Lakeland Regional Health's Chief Medical Officer.

Regan said patients visiting the emergency room for primary care related health issues cause delays for others.

"For an emergency department to be providing primary care, it takes away from your ability to treat strictly emergencies," Regan said.

To solve the issue, Lakeland Regional Health wants to start a clinical residency program, bringing in 200 to 250 physicians in training in the areas of family medicine, internal medicine, pediatrics, emergency, general surgery, gynecology and psychiatry, according to the health system's vice president of external affairs and chief compliance and integrity officer, Michael Spake.

Regan said that would allow the health system to open more primary care clinics and increase access to healthcare for people in the community.

Jerri Martin, who has been going to Lakeland Regional Health Medical Center for 20 years, thinks starting a residency program here is a good idea.

"There is a doctor shortage here. It is sometimes hard to get in," Martin said.

She said she's treated well once she sees her doctor, but she recalls a time she had trouble getting her foot in the door.

"It took me forever once my doctor retired to get in to see my primary care doctor, like 8 months," Martin recalled.

Lakeland Regional Health estimates creating a physician training program with 200 residents would result in an annual economic impact of $98.5 million in the area, as well as the addition of more than 234 jobs per year.

Due to a technicality, the hospital can't start its proposed full-time residency program unless Congress passes a bill to change the Graduate Medical Education rules.

Since Lakeland Regional Health accepts three doctors on rotation from other teaching hospitals, it is prevented from receiving funding to expand to a full-time Medicare-funded residency program. Sen. Bill Nelson introduced a bill with bipartisan support on June 6, to change this section of the law to allow for Lakeland Regional Health Medical Center and 10 other hospitals across the nation to start full-time residency programs.

"We're optimistic that it's going to pass and we're working very hard both in Washington D.C. and here to gain as much support as we can," Spake said.

Nelson also introduced a bill to allow for 15,000 new Medicare funded residency positions over five years.