PITTSFIELD — The Berkshire District Medical Society is providing a new incentive to bring more primary care physicians to the Berkshires.
The society has increased, from $5,000 to $10,000, the yearly scholarship loan it provides to medical students who are Berkshire County residents, adding a loan forgiveness policy.
If the recipient agrees to return to the Berkshires to practice as a primary physician and stays for three years, one-third of the loan would be reduced each year that the person practices locally.
“There’s an urgent shortage of primary care in the Berkshires, and the medical society is particularly concerned about correcting that shortage,” said Dr. Michael Kaplan, president of the Berkshire District Medical Society.
The society is the regional office of the Massachusetts Medical Society, the body that licenses doctors throughout the commonwealth. The Massachusetts Medical Society is the country’s oldest medical society, dating to 1781.
There are 149 primary care physicians in the Berkshires, which puts the ratio of local population to each doctor at 850-to-1, according to County Health Rankings and Roadmaps provided by the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute. The 2021 figures are based on data from 2018.
Berkshire County has the fourth-lowest total of primary care doctors among the state’s 14 counties, ahead of only Franklin County (48) and Dukes and Nantucket counties, each of which has fewer than 10. The local numbers have increased slightly since 2016, when the same ranking system listed the number of primary care physicians in the Berkshires at 143, a ratio of 906-to-1.
“There may be shortages of specialists as well that are isolated, but there should be twice as many primary care doctors in the commonwealth as there are now, and with many doctors nearing retirement in the Berkshires, the need is only going to get worse quickly,” Kaplan said.
“It’s always been difficult to bring doctors to the Berkshires,” he said. “Once we find them, they’re happy here. But, it’s hard to identify those people.”
For many years, Berkshire Health Systems, the county’s largest employer, has provided similar financial incentives to bring primary care physicians to the Berkshires. In 2016, BHS brought five new primary care physicians to the county, stationing them in facilities in the north, central and south regions of the Berkshires.
“Berkshire Health Systems supports any program that can help to enhance primary care services across the county,” said BHS spokesman Michael Leary. “Over the past several years, BHS has also provided financial assistance for new primary care providers to help them establish their practices, with loan forgiveness, which has helped to bring a number of physicians to the area, and we work regularly with providers to help retain their invaluable services to our patients.”
Lia Spiliotes, the president and CEO of Community Health Programs, also praised the Berkshire District Medical Society’s new proposal.
“I think it’s a really good idea,” she said. “We can’t have enough ideas of varying focus in order to attract people to the county. ... We’re always looking, when we are recruiting, to find new and novel ways to engage someone in coming to CHP. I’m definitely a proponent of finding as many ways to recruit people as possible.”
The Berkshire District Medical Society established a revolving scholarship loan program for medical students from Berkshire County in September 1961, when members voted to approve a loan of $1,000 per year. The amount was increased to $1,500 per year in 1974 and later to $5,000. The award was established on a revolving basis so that the repaid money would help as many medical students as possible.
“The cost of a medical education only increases exponentially from year to year, and these kids are graduating from medical school with huge debt burdens,” said Dr. John Burnham, who heads the Berkshire District Medical Society’s scholarship committee. “We think this is a way to give back to the next generation and encourage physicians to maybe follow their dreams and not pursue specialties that are particularly remunerative as opposed to the primary care specialties.”
Scholarships require that recipients be bona fide residents of Berkshire County already accepted at an approved medical school in the United States or Canada. Money will be paid directly to the school of choice.
The recipients sign agreements pledging to begin repayment of the scholarship loan — it’s unsecured and bears no interest — the year of graduation, with half of the amount to be repaid in four years and the balance in two additional years. Recipients are asked to consider serving residencies in Berkshire County hospitals.