Once a month, Dr. Sandra Nweke spends her day giving free health care to people who might otherwise stay sick.
Nweke and other physicians check patients’ blood pressure, their average blood sugar levels and more, allowing those who aren’t able to pay for a doctor’s visit to find care.
Nweke, who started a new job as a family medicine practitioner at DeTar Healthcare Systems, came to Victoria and decided to stay here thanks to DeTar Healthcare System’s residency program, which started in 2016. The program has brought 26 practicing family medicine physicians to Victoria while they complete their residency. And of the first graduating class of six physicians, Nweke and two other doctors have taken jobs in Victoria. Dr. Daniel Espinosa accepted a position as a hospitalist, and Dr. Chike Ochieze accepted a job as nocturnist.
The program, led by Dr. Sidney Ontai, is affiliated with the Texas A&M Health Science Center and has grown from a class of six interns to eight. For Victoria, the program has brought an extra two dozens doctors to the region plus additional programs, such as Nweke’s free clinic.
The residency is one of a number of solutions that Texas public health officials are green-lighting in an attempt to stave the pending – and in some cases, ongoing – doctor shortage throughout the state. Although the entire nation is bracing for a shortfall in primary care doctors, Texas in particular will have fewer doctors than needed to adequately serve the population 10 years from now. Texas will be short almost 3,400 physicians by 2030 to adequately serve the population, according to a 2018 report from the state health department, and the state already has fewer primary care physicians than the national average, according to federal data.
But these estimates could underestimate the severity of the current shortage, because so many Americans don’t have a primary care doctor.
“We have to change the perception so people know that you need a doctor that knows you, not a walk-in clinic, not an emergency room, because those are not an efficient delivery of health care,” said Dr. Mark Stevens, who helped build DeTar’s residency program. “So some of the deficit comes from the fact that there’s a large population that is not getting care ahead of time. So it’s much bigger than the statistical numbers that you see.”
One answer to the current and ongoing shortage is creating new residency programs in Texas. Nationwide, about 63 percent of physicians ultimately will continue working in the state where they completed their residency, according to a state report. DeTar’s partnership with Texas A&M Health Science Center College of Medicine formed in 2014 in an attempt to provide more local residency slots for graduating medical students wanting to stay in state.
To practice medicine in Texas, doctors have to complete postgraduate medical training through a program or fellowship.
Nweke, a Houston native, was drawn to Victoria because she was looking to practice medicine outside a big city where she could really connect with the community, she said. She was looking to develop relationships with patients that might be harder to maintain in a bigger city with a higher patient volume.
“I wanted to be like that family physician that you hear about that you actually get to be close with the whole family, you know everything about them, you take care of them from when they’re little to when you’re older,” Nweke said.
As she neared the end of her residency, Nweke decided to stay in Victoria because of the connections she had made with patients, the medical community and a desire to continue growing the free clinic, which was quickly embraced by social workers and patients in need in Victoria. The clinic has become so popular that some patients are turned away because there aren’t enough physicians to treat them, Nweke said. She hopes that with more resources, the clinic can grow to see more patients, be open more frequently, and even expand to locations in outlying counties in the Crossroads.
The need for the free clinic highlights a hole in the current healthcare system, Nweke said, where there are so many people who need preventative care but can’t afford to pay for it because they are either uninsured or underinsured. For example, conditions such diabetes and hypertension are both prevalent in South Texas, but both can grow into more serious medical conditions without regular care.
“I just feel like I can still do more in this community,” Nweke said. “I think there’s untapped potential in Victoria that needs to be addressed and I feel like ... if more people can stay and address those issues, I think Victoria could be something really special as far as like health care.”