Tackling Nevada’s shortage of medical specialists

Local News

Nevada ranks near the bottom when you consider the ratio of physicians to patients. That’s also true when you look at the availability of specialists. When you need care beyond what you get from your primary care doctor.

If you’ve ever needed to see a specialist, chances are you’ve had a hard time finding one let alone scheduling an appointment.

Last year, Nevada ranked in the bottom five states as far as the ratio of doctors available compared to the population in most specialties, according to a report from the University of Nevada, Reno.

“UNLV was at the top of my list,” said Dr. Allison McNickle, trauma surgeon.

Dr. Allison McNickle is one of 3,436 specialists in southern Nevada. She’s a trauma surgeon at University Medical Center. She came out of medical school in Chicago.

“I came here and did my training and cross-training, I was really challenged and thought it would be a good place for me to practice, just in terms of the patients that I would deal with and maximizing the knowledge I learned in training, so I opted to stay here and stay on as faculty at UNLV,” she said.

In southern Nevada, there is one specialist for every 629 people. But when you break it down by individual specialty, the gap widens. In Dr. McNickle’s specialty — surgery — there is one surgeon for every 12,500.

“There just aren’t enough specialties that are, that we’re training for now,” said Dr. Barbara Atkinson, dean, UNLV School of Medicine.

As founding dean, Dr. Barbara Atkinson has been tasked with building the UNLV Medical School literally from the ground up.

She says there’s no quick fix to the shortage of specialists but there are a few focuses to begin making a dent in the problem.

One is continue increasing the number of residencies and fellowships available to students. Former Governor Brian Sandoval included $10 million to help do that over the past two years and Governor Sisolak is proposing similar contributions for the next two years.

“So, we’ve added a number of residency programs, some with just more spots in the current programs, and some brand-new programs,” Dr. Atkinson said.

One new specialty coming from that money is geriatrics.

The university is seeking to bring in at least three new geriatricians who can then teach that specialty to residents.

“Residents learn with their doctor, seeing patients at the same time, so the good news is we’ll have three new doctors seeing patients, plus we’ll have two fellows and residents working with those doctors seeing patients,” she said.

And the other focus is UNLV Medical School will continue to recruit students who are Nevada residents or have close ties to the state.

Last year, the school had 1,900 applicants for just 60 spots. This year will likely draw similar interest.

“We’ll then hope that we can get them into our own residencies, so by the time we’ll have more resident spots open, we hope they’ll be able to fill into our residencies,” Dr. Atkinson said.

From there, Dr. Atkinson says statistics show there’s a likelihood those newly minted doctors will stay here.

That’s the plan for 2nd year medical student Maran Shaker.

“I definitely enjoy the environment here, definitely think there are excellent programs here, and I would want to stay here for residency if the opportunity arises for sure,” Shaker said.

Those opportunities take time and money. The money is a priority for the governor.

As for time, Shaker and others hope the right residencies come sooner — rather than later. 

“I would really love that opportunity to see myself and many of my classmates have the opportunity to go into our specialties of choice here in Las Vegas,” Shaker said.

The state has been able to add doctors, including specialists, over the last decade but not at the same rate as the overall population growth.

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