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Let's make Howard County the healthiest place in America

Let's make Howard County the healthiest place in America
Howard County and Howard County General Hospital are teaming up on a new program to encourage primary care physicians to practice in the community. (Joe Raedle / Getty Images)

Howard County was just named the 10th healthiest community in the United States by U.S. News & World Report, and we believe that getting to No. 1 is achievable.

To help us reach this goal, this week (which ends with Doctor’s Day on March 30) we are launching a new program called Practice Howard.

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For a limited investment of about $60,000 per year per doctor, we have a created an innovative strategy to bring more sorely needed primary care providers to Howard County and improve the services they deliver. We know of no other program in Maryland or elsewhere operating this way.

Talented and compassionate community health leaders have already created a clear roadmap of the pressing health concerns demanding attention: reducing obesity, improving behavioral health, promoting healthy aging, and expanding access to care.

Why is access a necessity? Long wait times for appointments often mean forgone care or worsening health. Studies show that when one has a medical “home,” their health outcomes improve. We all need a health professional who knows about us as individuals and cares about our well-being.

Unfortunately, right now, access to affordable health care is jeopardized in Howard County, and it is about to grow worse.

Johns Hopkins Health System research shows that our county faces a significant shortage of about 80 primary care physicians and internists within five years, caused by increased demand from population growth over the last two decades, including a disproportionate increase in residents over age 55, combined with reduced supply as more community doctors approach retirement.

Becoming a primary care physician is unfortunately not an attractive financial choice for doctors right out of medical school. The pay is less than that for other specialties, a major consideration for students who amass debt that frequently exceeds $300,000.

If a medical practice can find a doctor to recruit, initial losses as the provider builds his or her patient base and copes with the squeeze of reimbursements means that the office is likely to lose money, at least initially – something many practices can’t afford.

The bold program we are launching to address this challenge is a true public-private partnership: Howard County is providing the funding, and Howard County General Hospital is providing the administration.

The funding will cover physician recruitment costs, like advertising and other outreach along with education and training on best-practice care delivery models for all practice staff. Funding will also pay for loan repayment and housing assistance for doctors and for filling initial billing losses.

In exchange, the doctors will commit to stay in Howard County for at least five years, enough time to become part of the fabric of our spectacular community. The support we are providing will end after that.

Through a formal bid process that included hospital, county and community representation, two medical practices have been selected to participate in the first year of the program, and two doctors are expected to start by the summer.

That means, within a few months, 4,000 Howard County residents will have better access to primary care. We hope that number can double in a year.

The relationships these doctors will form with their patients are fundamental to the health of our community. When you have a primary care physician you know, you can see a professional when you are ill, instead of turning to the hospital emergency room. You can receive annual checkups and screenings to detect disease early. Moreover, chronic conditions like diabetes will be better managed.

Along with a strong economy, great public schools and abundant recreation facilities, health care is a prime factor in making Howard County the best place to live in the nation for all.

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We all know that our community is a wonderful place to call home, and through the innovative Practice Howard program, more doctors will be coming home to Howard County.

Calvin Ball (cball@howardcountymd.gov) is the Howard County Executive, and Steve Snelgrove (snelgrove@jhmi.edu) is the president of Howard County General Hospital, a member of Johns Hopkins Medicine.

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