Roberta Boltz keeps her doors unlocked at night. The former coal mine worker says it is just one perk of living in the small Pennsylvania town of Hegins.
But last Christmas morning, she had her first epileptic seizure, and her only worry about rural life took center stage: access to health care. There is no hospital in her community of 812 residents, and she says she does not trust the one closest to her.
“I’ve heard people say they wouldn’t send their dog to that hospital,” Boltz said. “They’re so understaffed.”
Seated upright in a platinum nightgown, with gauze covering her thin forehead, Boltz recently made the one-hour commute to Danville, Pennsylvania’s, eight-story, 559-bed Geisinger Medical Center to receive care, as she has done during several critical life moments. Geisinger treated her son’s Crohn’s disease when he was a child, and more recently, after her husband suffered a heart attack.
Located beside a 300-acre forest, Danville is not much more urban than Hegins. With a population of 4,631, it could not by itself support a hospital this size that serves all of central Pennsylvania and has grappled with its own issue of filling medical staff positions.
Geisinger has tried to solve its own staffing problem by hiring immigrants from Jamaica, India, the Philippines, South Korea, Kenya, Cameroon, Nigeria, Ghana and others — many of whom have come to live in a borough (town) that is 94% white.
In interviews with VOA, Geisinger staff referred to the nursing shortage crisis as one of its biggest supply-and-demand challenges. Despite being the region’s “employer of choice,” they say local talent recruitment alone has fallen short of their needs.
The entire United States faces a massive shortage of health care professionals over the next decade, including up to 120,000 physicians by 2030. One-third of currently active doctors in the country will reach retirement age during that span.
Unless the health care workforce gap is addressed, rural areas are likely to bear the brunt of its effects, says Andrew Lim, director of quantitative research at New American Economy, a bipartisan research organization.
“If you look at urban areas, there are over 200 doctors per 100,000 people. But if you look at rural counties, the number of doctors to go around is much less — something like 82 for every 100,000,” Lim told VOA.
The population of Danville more than doubles when Geisinger — with its 6,200 employees — is fully staffed. Among the workers: 415 internationally trained physicians and 57 foreign-born registered nurses.
“Not only is Geisinger trying to recruit (international nurses), many other health systems are,” Julene Campion, vice president of human resources at Geisinger, told VOA. “We could probably use another 100 easily (across the Geisinger network), but there aren’t enough available.”
“We’ve outgrown our ability to supply,” added Crystal Muthler, Geisinger’s vice president of nursing — a 30-year veteran.