Doctor Kassandra Payne didn’t choose to become a doctor, it was her destiny.
“The plan was always to go to small town and practice,” said Payne. “I didn’t really have any particular town in mind. I just knew that was my calling.”
The town she now calls home is Poteau, Oklahoma. She’s a family practice physician at Eastern Oklahoma Medical Center.
“If you’re someone who desires anonymity, this is not the place for you,” said Payne. “You know everybody in town. You often know their fifth cousin and their dog.”
Just under 10,000 people live in Poteau, but that’s plenty of people to keep the hospital busy.
“It’s not guaranteed if you’re sick today, and you just show up, that someone will be able to see you,” said Terry Buckner. Buckner is the CFO at Eastern Oklahoma Medical Center. He said it’s becoming harder for hospitals in small towns to compete with bigger cities because many aren’t willing to trade in the big city life for something a little slower.
“It kind of gets down to whether they want to live in a rural area or not,” said Buckner. “I can’t imagine living here, but most people, a small town is not their thing.”
Right now, they are short five doctors at the hospital. It’s not just happening in Poteau, but all around Oklahoma. In fact, almost all or parts of 76 of the 77 counties in Oklahoma don’t have enough primary care doctors, according to the Oklahoma Department of Health.
“There’s always someone willing to pay you more money because there’s a shortage of doctors,” said Buckner. “We’re all recruiting out of the same pool.”
With not enough doctors to go around, rural hospitals are closing. Buckner said things will only get worse if nothing is done.
“Five years from now, I’m sure you’ll see quite a few hospitals that are no longer out there,” said Buckner. “I’m safe with [saying] that. You can just look at what’s going on in Oklahoma now.”
But now, state lawmakers are trying to tackle the problem. House Bill 2511 would give doctors practicing in rural Oklahoma a $25,000 tax break on their state income taxes. There are some eligibility requirements, though. Some are that the doctor would have to have graduated from an Oklahoma college, practice in a community with less than 25,000 people, and they’d only be able to claim the tax break for five years. The bill went through the House and is now being considered by the Senate.
“At this point, any assistance would be a huge benefit to us,” said Payne.
Payne would be eligible for the tax break, which is a good thing, too. She graduated last year with more than $250,000 in student loans.
“It’s a burden, and something you’ve got to consider whenever you’re going out to your first practice, because somehow, you’ve got to pay those debts back,” said Payne.
She knows she could practice anywhere, but home is small-town Oklahoma.