With an aging population in Northwest Indiana, Region hospitals are busy recruiting a variety of medical specialties to meet the growing demand for health care. 

But it's not always easy, depending on where the hospital is located and the type of specialty in question.

"It's not unusual for small hospitals to have difficulties recruiting to rural areas," said Gigi Fergus, interim CEO of LaPorte Hospital, which also operates Starke Hospital. "We're pretty fortunate here in LaPorte that we're nicely centered between South Bend and Chicago."

Northwest Indiana faces shortages of primary care physicians, psychiatrists, dermatologists, urologists, rheumatologists, critical care doctors, neurologists, general surgeons and gastroenterologists, hospital executives say. The demand is increasingly being met by telemedicine, but hospitals still want these specialists on staff to give themselves a competitive advantage.

There are others specialties that simply don't exist in Northwest Indiana. The Region has no academic medical centers or children's hospitals and, thus, doesn't have any transplant surgeons and a variety pediatric sub-specialties.

Shortages are growing

Overall, the United States is predicted to have a shortage of roughly 90,000 doctors by the year 2025, according to the American Academy of Medical Colleges. About a third of those are in primary care.

Meanwhile, 15 percent of the population of Lake, Porter and LaPorte counties was 65 or older in 2015, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

"If you look at all the projections, physician recruitment is going to become more and more difficult," said Steve Lunn, CEO of Porter Healthcare System.

"Medical schools are producing seemingly less and less physicians. With the aging population, the need is growing exponentially. The effort we put into recruitment now is going to pay dividends 10, 20 years from now when the shortage is even greater."

Still, there are successes. He said Porter recently has been able to hire some hard-to-find physicians, including a maternal and fetal medicine doctor and a pediatric ear, nose and throat specialist.

Hospital officials say the local medical residency consortium formed in January also will help with recruitment. There are currently no medical residency slots in Northwest Indiana. But under the new arrangement, hospitals and community health centers could start hosting new physicians for their post-graduate training in 2019. More than two-thirds of doctors end up practicing in the state where they did their residencies, the American Academy of Medical Colleges found.

Pros, cons of being close to Chicago

Northwest Indiana's proximity to Chicago is both a gift and a curse, hospital executives say.

"We're not going to be able to compete with downtown Chicago pay, but a lot of doctors don't like the hustle and bustle of being downtown," said Fergus, of LaPorte Hospital.

Keep reading for FREE!
Enjoy more articles by signing up or logging in. No credit card required.

"For young families, this is a nice place to raise your family. You're not exposed to a lot of the problems of city life, per se. We have a lot less crime than Chicago, lower cost of living."

Lunn, of Porter, said living and working in Indiana presents other advantages: lower taxes and lower malpractice fees and penalties.

"If you find somebody who wants to live on Lake Shore Drive, we're not going to be able to convince them to come out here," he said.

"When you talk about recruiting physicians, it's not just about a job. You're asking someone to build a practice, to build a life, locate their families here and really plant roots. The key to recruiting physicians is finding people who are a good fit not only for the organization but (also) for the community. The odds of retaining those people are much higher."

Nearer to the city, Community Healthcare System, with locations in East Chicago, Hobart and Munster, uses the proximity to Chicago to its advantage.

"We benefit from being close to Chicago, where there are a significant number of medical programs and residencies and fellowships," said Dr. Alan Kumar, chief medical officer for Community Healthcare System.

"We're close enough to the Chicagoland market where a significant number of our physicians can live within or just south of the city. As you go farther east in Indiana, you lose that major metropolitan area as a feeder for those hospitals."

Region hospitals often partner with Chicago academic institutions to bring specialists out to Northwest Indiana. Through arrangements like this, and its own physician recruitment, Community is able to offer some procedures rarely found outside academic medical centers, Kumar said: transcatheter aortic valve replacement, aneurysm clipping, deep brain stimulation for Parkinson's patients.

Quality matters, too

Also located in Lake County, Methodist Hospitals said its close distance to Chicago is an advantage as well.

"A lot of doctors prefer to have a lifestyle of living in the city or living close to the city but commuting and working here in Northwest Indiana," said Dr. Vincent Sevier, vice president and chief quality officer for Methodist Hospitals.

"Some might prefer to live in Northwest Indiana. We have good schools. The cost of living is great. You're not that far of a drive from the city."

Over the past year, Methodist Hospitals also has recruited a couple of in-demand specialties: a spine surgeon and sports medicine surgeon.

Doctors also choose locales based on the quality of a given hospital, Sevier said. Methodist's new spine surgeon, Dr. Ashish Patel, said he took the job in part to work with veteran spine surgeon, Dr. Elian Shepherd.

"Every place is a little different, so really what you want to tap into is finding doctors who fit your culture," Sevier said.


Health Reporter

Giles is the health reporter for The Times, covering the business of health care as well as consumer and public health. He previously wrote about health for the Lawrence (Kansas) Journal-World. He is a graduate of Northern Illinois University.