The Optum-Hemet Clinic and Community Center will make it possible for people in southwest Riverside County to get primary medical care in once place. Officials also hope that, in time, the clinic will help solve a chronic doctor shortage in that part of the Inland Empire.
A medical facility that provides across-the-board care for children and adults opened last month in Hemet, a project that Inland health-care officials hope will meet two goals.
First, the Optum-Hemet Clinic and Community Center is expected to make it easier for people in that part of the Inland Empire to get the treatment they need in one place.
The clinic includes a pharmacy, radiology imaging and it will soon add a laboratory, said Jamie Phillps, president of Optum Inland Empire.
Optum, a division of UnitedHealth Group, is a Minnesota-based primary care provider that operates throughout North America,
The community center, which held a grand opening and ribbon cutting ceremony June 25, includes a full-service gym, a multi-purpose room for lifestyle classes and smaller rooms for more intimate gatherings.
The medical clinic-community center was to have opened last November, but that was postponed because of COVID-19.
“We want to make it easier for people to access the healthcare and social support they need,” said Dr. Amar Desai, chief executive officer of Optum California, in a statement issued the day the primary care clinic opened. “By bringing together multiple healthcare services under one roof, we hope to improve the health and wellness of the Hemet community.”
The new community center is open to the public free of charge. It offers educational and entertainment programs and classes for all ages, fitness programs for all ages and ability levels and arts and crafts programs.
Second, the new healthcare clinic-community center at 1850 W. Florida Ave. is meant to help address a chronic physician shortage in the Inland Empire, one that is bad and likely to get worse, according to a study released late last year.
“We hope this will appeal to doctors who want to be employees rather than run their own practices,” Phillips said. “As doctors and physicians get older and they get closer to retiring, a lot of them want to sell their practice, but they still want to practice medicine.”
“We’ve talked to a lot of doctors [in the Hemet area], and we’ve heard that loud and clear.”
There’s no question that many people who live and work in Riverside County don’t have access to the medical care they need, and that problem is especially severe in Hemet, a city in southwest Riverside County with a population of about 92,000.
The city’s population is expected to reach 115,400 by 2035, and 126,500 by 2040, according to an American Community Survey by the U.S. Census Bureau cited on the city’s website.
The Hemet-Optum clinic is exactly what southwest Riverside County needs, said Hemet Councilwoman Linda Krupa.
“I was part of the tour the day it opened and I think it’s wonderful,” Krupa said. “It will help people who don’t have primary care, which is something most people don’t think about until there’s an emergency. They think about when they’re dialing 911.”
There are a number of reasons why the Inland Empire, and southwest Riverside County in particular, has a shortage of doctors, according ton Krupa.
“Not as many people go to medical school now because it’s so expensive,” Krupa said. “There’s also an allure to working in a big city, and we’re not a big city.”
The Health Resources and Service Administration – an agency of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Service that gets medical care to the uninsured and people who live in isolated communities – has designated Hemet a “health professional shortage area.”
That means it doesn’t have enough doctors and nurses to serve its population.
As for the Inland Empire, it has fewer primary care and specialty physicians than other regions in California: only 42 primary care physicians per 100,000 residents, compared with an average of 60 statewide, and 83 specialists per 100,000 residents compared with an average of 131 statewide, according to a survey by the nonprofit California Health Care Foundation in Oakland.
Several medical schools that opened recently in the Inland Empire – most notably the UC Riverside School of Medicine, which graduated its first class in 2017 – have probably increased the number of doctors in both counties, Phillips said.
However, the Inland region’s doctor shortage persists for several reasons, beginning with a lot of medical school graduates don’t live and practice medicine in the area where they went medical school, Phillips said.
Unfortunately, the Inland regions demographics are creating a need for more doctors.
“The bigger problem is you have a growing population, but a big part of that population is also aging, and older people need more medical care,” Phillips said.
Exactly how serious the doctor-physician shortage is in Riverside and San Bernardino counties is spelled out in the Health Care Foundation survey, a 20-page analysis released in December.
Nearly 30 percent of the two-county region’s population lives in an area that has a shortage of medical professionals, and the largest of those areas is Hemet-San Jacinto, according to the foundation, which focuses on improving California’s healthcare system, especially for low-income residents.
The study also found that Inland Empire residents often struggle to get access to healthcare: nearly 25 percent reported that they are “never” able to schedule a doctor’s appointment within two days, compared with 15 percent statewide. Also, nearly 29 percent of the region’s Medi-Cal patients said they had not had a routine checkup within the past year, compared to 23 percent statewide.
Inland Medi-Cal patients also reported having a more difficult time finding a specialist when they needed one: 26 percent have had their insurance turned down by a specialist, compared with 20 percent of Medi-Cal patients statewide.
Regarding the doctor shortage, the report ends pessimistically, noting that there is “widespread skepticism” that hospitals and clinics in the Inland Empire can narrow the gap by recruiting doctors from outside the area.
“California’s larger cities are perceived as offering more amenities and better practice opportunities for more highly specialized physicians, which makes recruitment, particularly in the region’s eastern areas, difficult,” the report states. “As a result, those seeking to recruit physicians emphasized the importance of developing the Inland Empire’s local medical student pipeline, and tapping personal connections to attract friends and acquaintances to work in the region.”
Physicians who work in larger markets also tend to get paid more, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be recruited to work in the Inland region, according to Howard Rosenthal, a patient-physician ombudsman at Hemet Hospital.
“We have lower housing costs, we have great outdoor recreation and we’re one of the fastest-growing areas in California,” said Rosenthal, a real estate agent in Hemet who has developed a second career as health-care advocate in in the Inland region. “We also have residency programs that are allowing us to grow our own doctors. There’s a lot going on out here.”