Residents of Vermont’s Essex County struggle to find health care

Published: Apr. 19, 2021 at 5:11 PM EDT
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ISLAND POND, Vt. (WCAX) - Earlier this month, our investigative team highlighted a shortage of doctors in rural areas across the country. That investigation revealed Vermont is home to one of those so-called health care deserts.

Essex County is in the far northeast corner of Vermont with a population of about 6,200 people. Across the entire area, there is just one primary care doctor and no specialist. There is also no hospital in the county. The closest hospital is in St. Johnsbury in Caledonia County, which is quite a drive for many in the Northeast Kingdom.

“Our health center is the only option that we have and they need more help,” said Robin Halfmoon of Island Pond.

People who live in Island Pond say one health center just isn’t enough.

The Island Pond Health and Dental Center serves more than 90% of residents there. Currently, there’s only one physician, one nurse practitioner, two dentists and four hygienists.

Staff members tell us there’s a lack of specialty services in the Northeast Kingdom and there’s no hospital for miles.

Halfmoon has lived in Island Pond for a year and a half and says she has to drive at least a half-hour to get to the nearest hospital.

“Sometimes, down to Dartmouth-Hitchcock which is a couple of hours away. And it’s exhausting. I am disabled and it makes for things being very confusing,” Halfmoon said. “And how long do we have to wait to go to the doctor, the dentist?”

Dr. Charles MacLean, the associate dean of the UVM Larner College of Medicine, says there are several challenges in recruiting doctors-- especially those just starting out in their career-- to live and work in rural areas.

“Some of the other challenges include things like the availability of employment for a spouse or a partner. In rural areas, there are fewer employers so one of the big challenges when we recruit people is finding employment for a spouse,” MacLean said.

MacLean says another factor is that more physicians are moving away from private practices toward an “employed model” which is a practice owned by a larger entity such as a hospital or federally qualified health center.

“Increasingly, we’re seeing that physicians are joining these employed models as opposed to striking out in private practice. That’s been something that’s been really gradually occurring over the last 20 or 30 years,” he said.

MacLean says there are a variety of loan repayment programs offered at the federal and state levels to incentivize young professionals to practice in more rural areas.

Related Story:

Large swaths of rural America are health care deserts with too few primary care doctors, pediatricians, and OB-GYNs to care for residents

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