Coming up short: Tulare County's health care options aren't enough

Published on
October 19, 2010

When my 2-year-old son has to see a doctor for his eyes or ears, I plan to take at least a half a day off work, if not a full day. Between the hours-long wait in the overcrowded specialists' offices and the time it takes to travel to another county, our time is eaten away because these doctors are so few and far between in the San Joaquin Valley. That's the mantra of Tulare County and health care. There aren't enough doctors to go around, specialist or otherwise. A local health care administrator told me that he believes Visalia has about half the primary care/family medical physicians for the California average. He also estimates there are less than half that of non-primary care specialists. At least I can afford to take a half day off of work. I can also afford the gas money it takes to get to the specialists an hour away. With a median income of just over $40,000, many of Tulare County's residents can't afford those things. Not to mention some treatments or surgeries require patients to travel hundreds of miles to Los Angeles or San Francisco - a feat most cannot afford. It doesn't help that Tulare County is always in the top 10 list every time a California health study is released - and not in a good way. It is sixth in the state for an overweight population and seventh for those who have diabetes. Then there's that issue of having some of the worst air in the nation. So there are lots of sick people here, and not nearly enough doctors to treat them. There are support groups, classes, programs and people scrambling to get grants just to campaign against unhealthy habits such as soda consumption. But it doesn't seem to fix Tulare County, where about 50 percent of the population is medically indigent, the unemployment rates are some of the highest in the country and more than 15 percent of the population is living in poverty. County clinics have closed, physicians have left and most doctors aren't even taking new patients. The one local family health care community clinic has more patients than it can handle and it has two full-time staff recruiters. The local hospital spends about $13 million every year on charity care - for a county with a population of less than 500,000. Doctors don't want to work here because it doesn't pay out financially and there are few amenities, especially compared to northern and southern California. So this cycle of poverty and a lack of resources is perpetuated. My California Endowment Health Journalism Fellowship project will explore this cycle, what is causing it and if anyone is making a breakthrough to change what is happening here.