If you look at the data, West Virginia has enough pediatricians to cover the number of children here. What there aren’t enough of is many pediatric specialties such as pediatric allergists, neurologists or rheumatologists. And that’s forcing many families like the Laxtons to seek care out of state.
Lori Laxton met me at McDonalds in Beckley. When her daughter was four she began having trouble with her kidneys.
The closest pediatric urologist was at the University of Virginia Medical Center - 3.5 to four hours away from her home in Pineville.
A few years later, her son was diagnosed with general epilepsy. The closest neurologist was in Charleston - almost two hours away. Although closer, that experience didn’t go well.
“He pretty much looked at us and said your son will have seizures. Get over it and go on,” said Laxton.
Laxton didn’t accept that diagnosis and ended up driving farther for a second opinion. That experience went better so she continued making the three-four hour trip with her son.
A pediatric cardiologist based in Morgantown, Larry Rhodes, said pediatric and adult subspecialties are totally different ballgames.
“There’s really a lot of difference between - let me just use peds cardiology as an example - what we take care of as pediatric cardiologists is not the same thing as that adult cardiologists take care of...The only thing we really share is the word cardiologist - we’re really two completely different specialists,” said Rhodes.
In 2014, Rhodes set up a specialty pediatric clinic in Summersville. Twelve days a month about ten different pediatric specialists now come to the central part of the state to see patients. He also helped grow the number of pediatric cardiology clinics across the state to eight.
“My ultimate goal would be that no child would leave West Virginia for care,” said Rhodes. “But there are some specialties that we don't have and sometimes the wait time to get in to see a specialist in some of these specialties that only have one or two providers is prohibitive.”
Sending specialties out to communities helps bridge the gap. But Rhodes points out, travel eats into how much time physicians have to actually see patients. So efforts to expand in-state access to specialists include improving access to telemedicine services. Those efforts are hindered by a lack of reliable statewide broadband.
“So we kind of put it together with duct tape - we do the best we can and if get to some place where we can do you know telemedicine and then we have the patients they have to come some distance to get there,” he said
But ultimately if we can improve broadband access, that could help solve the problem, he said. Giving patients better access and more choice.
Appalachia Health News is a project of West Virginia Public Broadcasting, with support from the Benedum Foundation, Charleston Area Medical Center and WVU Medicine.