It’s no secret Humboldt County has a doctor shortage. The lack of both primary care physicians and specialists has a variety of causes, and a host of impacts on the community.
And efforts to recruit and retain doctors are met with mixed results; the shortage continues, but once in a while, you get a success story like Kelvin Vu.
Vu has worked for the North Country Clinic, part of the North Coast’s Open Door Health Clinic organization, for five years.
An Orange County transplant, he ended up in Humboldt County as part of a program to directly address underserved areas. In his case, the program went above and beyond expectations.
Vu had attended medical school for free as part of the National Health Service Corps’ scholarship program, which pays for the associated costs of education with one caveat: for each year of financial support, the student must serve a year in a needy area.
Vu was completing his medical residency at University of California Davis, and was considering where he’d want to fulfill his scholarship requirement when he and his wife took a camping trip at Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park. They loved Humboldt County, and he set his sights on working here.
As it turns out, the North Coast fits the Corps’ qualifications as an underserved area. While the county is rural and remote, there are designated urban and suburban communities around the U.S. that the Corps — a division of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services — recognizes as lacking in health care providers. Each of those areas has its own roots of the problem, and each needs a different plan to address it.
The number one reason it’s difficult to recruit and retain doctors on the North Coast, Vu said, is the region’s remoteness. It’s time consuming and expensive to travel in and out of here — a burden he understands, given much of his family lives at the opposite end of the state. Doctors have to travel for work, not just pleasure, and those difficulties translate to the conferences and programs they must attend all over the U.S. to keep up with their education as well, he said.
Despite the challenges, Vu has settled in at the North Country Clinic and Humboldt County. His wife is a physician for the Open Door Clinic in McKinleyville, and they have a 14-month old child.
To him, the remote nature of the county provides him with exactly the professional experience he wants.
A lack of other medical professionals allows him to “maximize his clinical skills as a physician,” he said. He follows people further into specialty care than he would in a more populated area, or a rural area with better access to urban centers, giving him the opportunity to practice “full spectrum family medicine. … I can do things I wouldn’t in other places and practice the type of medicine I want to.”
Plus, he gets to see people from all walks of life. Physicians in underserved urban areas may only work with indigent populations; in Arcata, he gets to work with the rural poor, students, professors — the full spectrum of patients.
If it all sounds a bit like a sales pitch for Humboldt County, you’re not entirely wrong. The NHSC scholarship program is in its application period for this year, and Vu works closely with the NHSC and Open Door Health Clinic to attract graduating medical students to the area.
Students who choose to take loans for medical school come out with mountains of debt — and practicing in larger communities usually promises higher pay straight out of residency. But the scholarship program, Vu said, not only introduces people to places like Humboldt County, which may go overlooked in job searches, but it also allows them to trade a potentially higher paycheck (to get out of debt) for a higher quality of life.
“Humboldt County is a great place to practice medicine and to have a family,” Vu said. “You can’t change the geography of where you live,” so Open Door is looking for new ways to recruit and support doctors clinically and socially. The scholarship program is an important way to bring in physicians who want to practice in underserved areas.
Vu also sits on the executive board of the Humboldt-Del Norte Medical Society, which works with local high schoolers who are interested in going into medicine. Connecting with young people — who know the challenges, and benefits of living in an underserved area — increases their chances of returning to Humboldt County when they finish school. Promoting the scholarship program is way to show medically inclined youth they don’t have to take on massive debt to help their communities.
Working in an underserved area is not easy. “It can be very taxing,” Vu said. “At the end of the day you have to have a passion for what you do and where you live.”
The application period for NHSC scholarships ends on April 28. For more information or to apply, visit www.nhsc.hrsa.gov.