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Amid contract negotiations, Contra Costa doctors' union says lack of physicians impacting patient care

PIX Now -- Friday morning headlines from the KPIX newsroom
PIX Now -- Friday morning headlines from the KPIX newsroom 09:24

There aren't enough doctors in the Contra Costa County health system and the problem will only get worse next year, according to the union representing county doctors and dentists.

The Physicians' and Dentists' Organization of Contra Costa (PDOCC) released a statement Thursday saying the high number of doctor vacancies in the county system "is negatively impacting patient care and is expected to get much worse in the next year."
PDOCC is currently negotiating a new contract with the county.

The union said that according to county data, 83 out of 285 employed positions are listed as vacant in Contra Costa Health Services (CCHS), a 29 percent vacancy rate.

The union said that includes 27 vacant positions in family medicine and primary care adult medicine, five vacant dentist positions and five vacant OB/GYN positions. With 19 vacant psychiatrist positions, the union said 27 percent of employed psychiatry positions are currently filled.

It also said there are 11 vacant positions in the emergency department -- half of the department's employed positions, a development the union said "means the county is unable to safely staff the emergency room."

CCHS spokesperson Kim McCarl said health systems across the country are struggling to recruit and retain medical staff at all levels. She said Contra Costa County is no different.

"It's important to note that a physician vacancy does not mean that there is a clinical vacancy, nor that care is compromised," McCarl said. "We are confident that the right provider is caring for the right patient in the right way at Contra Costa Regional Medical Center and Health Centers every day."

PDOCC officials said that since November, five emergency department doctors have left the Contra Costa system, and the county interviewed and offered positions to 21 new applicants, but the offer was declined by every one.

"The problem is expected to get a lot worse in 2024 when Contra Costa County will need an additional 40 primary care providers to care for 30,000 new Medi-Cal patients being added to the county's health services due to an agreement between the county and California's Department of Health Care Services," PDOCC said, in the statement.

McCarl said CCHS provides flexible work schedules, emphasizes proactive care, and recruits and retains doctors who want to practice in an integrated environment.

"It's not uncommon for our physicians to be experts in many areas of clinical medicine which our system values," McCarl said. "We value physicians who embrace our mission and choose to work for Contra Costa Health on a full-time, permanent basis but we also welcome doctors who take a less traditional approach to their careers by working part time or in partnership with other health care entities.

"These approaches help to alleviate the burnout that has been so costly to hospitals and healthcare systems since the height of the pandemic," McCarl said.

The union said the county has averaged filling three primary care doctor vacancies annually over the last three years.

"The shortage of employed physicians in the county health system impacts patient care and creates a serious public health concern," said Dr. David MacDonald, PDOCC president. "Over the last three years, Contra Costa's frontline doctors, dentists, optometrists and other healthcare heroes worked tirelessly to keep our communities healthy and safe. With the County's inaction, we see worsening morale among our physicians and dentists, high turnover rates, and an inability to recruit the talented medical and dental professionals we need for a thriving public health system."

McCarl said CCHS is one of the highest-rated family medicine training programs in the country. "We recruit well-trained physicians who are familiar with our system from each graduating class," she said. "Recruitment and retention of physicians is a top priority at Contra Costa Health. We will continue to explore ways to fill every clinically relevant vacancy across our healthcare system." 

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