By most accounts Jason Wallace of Pagosa Springs, Colorado is leading the quintessential Colorado life. Snowboarding, hiking and mountain biking are regular activities for him, his wife and their two young daughters. Their mountain town has a local farmers market, a 4th of July parade, Friday night high school football games and their fair share of wildlife sightings down the town’s main streets.
“It’s really a great place to raise a family,” said Wallace.
Sound like a typical Colorado story? Actually it’s not — Jason Wallace is a physician in Pagosa Springs, one of only a handful who offers primary care to patients in the southwestern Colorado area.
Working at the town’s 11-bed hospital – the only one within a 50-mile radius that has 24-hour emergency care – is only part of the job for Wallace, who spends the majority of his time in the rural health clinic that’s attached to the hospital. In this clinic, two physicians and three physician assistants see dozens of patients a week for everything from pediatric care to chronic illness management. In addition, they offer prenatal care for the pregnant women in the area.
Like a lot of rural health clinics, they need more health care professionals to meet their patients’ needs. (Fact is, in 15 Colorado counties, there are two or fewer physicians providing care on a regular basis.) Dr. Wallace’s clinic manages to bring in visiting OB-GYNs, neurologists and cardiologists monthly, but the clinic itself and the hospital lack full-time specialists, putting the majority of responsibility on the shoulders of the primary care physicians and the local surgeon. The hospital has no intensive care unit, meaning the most critical patients need to travel to a larger hospital in Durango, and all the pregnant women in the area – even those who get their prenatal care in Pagosa Springs – must travel 60 miles to Durango when it comes time to deliver their babies, because the local hospital doesn’t have the resources and facility for deliveries.
Imagine being in labor, driving through the middle of the night in January (in the snowy Colorado mountains) to deliver your baby!
“We are doing everything we can to meet the needs of our community, but it can be challenging because the demand for care is so great,” continued Wallace. “I am booked out three weeks for an appointment, and that means some patients end up using the ER for their primary care. Simply put, we need more providers.”
What’s preventing Pagosa Springs from recruiting and hiring more health care providers? It’s a challenge the Colorado Rural Health Center has been tackling for years.
The basic fact is that many of Colorado’s rural communities – even those we’d consider tourist and recreation destinations like Pagosa Springs – struggle with recruiting and retaining primary care and specialty care physicians. This dynamic means that the people in these areas have limited access to the health care they need.
“I don’t know why anyone wouldn’t want to live and work here,” summed up Wallace. “There’s no better place to feel like you’re a valuable part of the community than in a Colorado small town.”