Family practice physicians in Alaska can count on treating the usual ear infections, urinary tract infections and rashes. But at any given moment, they also can find themselves the only pair of hands available to perform an emergency laparoscopic surgery for an ectopic pregnancy, talked through the steps via a gynecologist hundreds of miles away communicating into a headset.
Welcome to the true Wild West, an untamed landscape unlike any practice opportunities you’ll find in the Lower 48. There’s no managed care, few hospital-employed positions, and the biggest “fight” the 250 members of the Alaska Academy of Family Physicians faces this year is to encourage four-wheelers to wear helmets.
It was an atmosphere Katy Sheridan, MD, couldn’t leave. Born and raised on a homestead on the Alaska peninsula, she attended medical school at the University of Washington in Seattle, then fulfilled her residency in Bangor, Maine.
Eight years ago, she returned as a family practice physician, ready to set up a private practice in Soldotna. Since Anchorage is just 150 miles away, she says her stories of dramatic trauma moments don’t compare to her colleagues.’ On the other hand, how many family doctors deliver 40 babies a year and become president of their group academy for the state only eight years into their career?
If that sounds promising, there’s definitely a practice opportunity ready to welcome you with open arms. As of 2002, our 49th state had the sixth poorest physician-to-patient ratios, with just 1,350 doctors to cover a population of 644,000. And more than half of those physicians are older than 50, so groups like the AAFP foresee an even larger shortage looming.
“A lot of people like the idea of checking out Alaska because it has a mystique about it,” says Sheridan. “A lot of people came here for the summer to work and never left. It doesn’t take people very long to know if they’ll like it or not.”