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Minnesota small towns face doctor shortage

ADA — The upcoming departure of the only doctor in the northwestern Minnesota town of Ada is highlighting the growing shortage of family care physicians, particularly in smaller communities.

Dr. Jeff Peterson is the lone doctor living and working in the town of 1,700 people about 30 miles north of Fargo-Moorhead. Peterson is leaving Dec. 31 for a position in Fargo.

Some rural health centers have closed after too many doctors left small towns for jobs in bigger cities. In January, Duluth-based Essentia Health, which operates Ada's hospital, was posting 24 open family medicine positions out of 100 total openings.

The Association of American Medical Colleges estimates the country will be short 90,000 doctors over all fields in the next 10 years.

Todd Sawrey, an Ada business owner who chairs the local economic development authority, said residents were concerned that Essentia would not be able to fill the full-time doctor's position.


"It's critical not only for the citizenry of the community, but it's really something we have come to rely on," Sawrey said. "(Essentia Health) has doctors that come in from afar, which is nice, but there's nothing like having that person who lives in the community and knows all of your illnesses, all of your joys."

The high number of retiring practitioners has contributed to the shortage of family practice doctors, said Jodi Lorenson, physician recruiter for Essentia Health. The average age of doctors nationwide is 55, she said, and the number of doctors soon to retire is far greater than the number of students coming out of medical schools.

Ryan Hill, the administrator at Essentia Health-Ada, said he's confident about finding a full-time replacement for Peterson. He said the hospital may have to be more flexible about on-call hours than they were with Peterson, who was often on call at the full-service hospital with an emergency room as well as an adjacent nursing home.

"We'll need to be open to a different model," Hill said.

Lorenson said a handful of candidates have already shown interest in the position. Peter Jacobson, president of Essentia Health, told the City Council at a recent meeting that the recruitment process could take three months or three years.

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