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Southwest Florida is much different now than it was when Dr. Mitchell Zeitler relocated here in 1999.


“When I first moved here it was like the frontier,” jokes the president of Collier County Medical Society. Since then, he says, he’s seen remarkable developments.


But in the light of many improvements, the medical field seems to have come up short. A recent study commissioned in part by the Teaching Hospital Council of Florida and the Safety Net Hospital Alliance of Florida shows the state of Florida has an estimated 11 percent physician deficit.


According to the study, demand for doctors is exceeding supply by 5 percent. By 2025, it could rise to 7 percent. The seven-county Southwest Florida region is predicted to have at least a 20 percent shortfall by 2025.


To some area health care experts, the findings didn’t come as a surprise. “It reinforced yet again what we’ve known for quite some time in the medical world,” says Dr. Andrew Oakes-Lottridge, president of Lee County Medical Society. “We are just not training as many physicians.”


Fewer doctors are entering lower-paying areas like primary care, and therefore have been unable to replace retiring physicians and tend to a growing population.


“[Medical students] are looking to see what they can balance out with being able to pay back loans and have a family,” Zeitler says.


Ten years from now, the Southwest Florida region is predicted to be down by 109 general surgery specialists, 107 anesthesiology specialists and 263 general family practice specialists.


Residents may already sense a shortfall with extended wait times and heavily booked appointment slots, but experts say if situations worsen, emergency rooms and urgent care centers may become overused as a last resort.


“As a primary care doctor, that is not where I want my patients to go because I don’t have time to see them in the office,” Oakes-Lottridge says.


Plans are in place to combat those numbers. Lee Memorial Health System partnered with Florida State University College of Medicine in 2012 to create a family practice residency program.


Thirteen students are currently enrolled in the 36-month program. Program director Dr. Gary Goforth says the idea is to lure fresh physicians permanently to the area.


“Study after study shows doctors are more likely to practice where they do their residency program. And it improves our medical practice,” Goforth says. 


But the cost of training physicians can be steep, and adequate government funding is critical for expansion. Gov. Rick Scott proposed over $80 million in reoccurring funds for medical education programs starting next year, and hospital groups requested more funding by state legislators in light of the study findings.


For now, some health care specialists say assistant medical practitioners can help ease the void for patients. Zeitler says other facilities, such as the still-developing Golisano Children’s Hospital of Southwest Florida, will continue to help attract professionals, and their loved ones, to the area.


“All of it will really help. People won’t have to worry about bringing their families here,” Zeitler says. “It will be interesting to see how it all pans out.” GB

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