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Saturday, Dec 08 2012 10:00 PM

ROBERT PRICE: How to bring more doctors to Bakersfield

By The Bakersfield Californian

Newcomers to the medical profession are walking into a buyer's market. The demand for doctors and other health care professionals far outstrips the supply. That means young doctors, nurses, physician assistants and assorted technicians looking for a place to practice can and will shop around.

For most of them, the quality of local hospitals and other medical facilities will weigh heaviest in their decision. But a close second -- OK, it may even be number one -- is what we might call the Spouse Factor. Will the missus, or the mister, be entertained, fulfilled and comfortable in the suitor city?

This matters to us in Bakersfield because this area -- the whole San Joaquin Valley in fact -- is seriously underserved when it comes to medical caregivers. As Catherine Dower, associate director for the Center for the Health Professions at the University of California, San Francisco, noted at a forum in Bakersfield last month, for every doctor who decides to work in an underserved area, four opt for cities that already have plenty.

It's a concern of some magnitude around here, and fortunately we fully recognize it. Local leaders in the health care field know the importance of producing our own medical professionals because it's so much easier to retain hometown doctors than import them. But it's tough to produce them without a local pre-med program, much less a local medical school. The residency program at Kern Medical Center, along with ever-expanding Clinica Sierra Vista, are the best things we've got going.

Until that changes for the better, local hospitals will have to continue to rely on the recruitment of nonlocal professionals. We must sell our city.

The body of research on the science of creating the type of place desireable professionals would want to live is vast and getting vaster. The best-known guru is Richard Florida, the urban studies theorist and University of Toronto professor who coined the term "creative class" to identify the people who tend to be the key drivers of municipal economic development. Florida refers primarily to entrepreneurs, innovators and artists, but doctors share some of their most sought-after characteristics: high disposable incomes and very real contributions to overall quality of life.

But doctors and other in-demand professionals aren't just looking for earning power. They're looking for nice places to live. And Bakersfield hasn't always been that place. Ask anybody who's ever tried to lasso them.

Joyce Hulen, an administrative assistant with Physicians Automated Laboratory, has had her heart broken more than once by a job candidate's unimpressed spouse.

"They come and you drive them around town and try to highlight some of the things we have here," she said. "But when you're coming from Newport Beach or the San Francisco metropolitan area, and you look around, it's rinky-dink this, rinky-dink that.

"In the last five years we've taken a giant leap forward, no question. It used to be that there might be a big event coming up and you'd sort of wait for it. Now, on any given night, there are many things to choose from."

That's just the sort of thing Florida's "creative class" looks for in a place: energy and an abundance of it. As Seattle-based Michael Luis & Associates noted in a 2009 report, "Tale of Ten Cities: Attracting and Retaining Talent," cities must cater to the professionals it values. "Amenities can be packaged into 'scenes' that appeal to specific demographic groups," the report stated. "Consumers of culture tend to look for a package of services and amenities that make up a comprehensive "scene" that they enjoy and can participate in."

If the rest of us get to enjoy that "scene," too -- think performing arts center or professional baseball stadium -- that's fine with me. Considering such amenities frivolous, as some locals surely do, ignores a big picture we've already ignored too long.

Email Editorial Page Editor Robert Price at rprice@ bakersfield.com.

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