Nearly 6,000 doctors along the Gulf Coast were uprooted by Hurricane Katrina in the largest displacement of physicians in U.S. history, university researchers reported Monday.
How many of those doctors will set up shop permanently in other cities, or decide to retire instead of reopening their practices, remains as unclear as New Orleans' future.
"We don't know what this is going to mean to health care," said Dr. Thomas Ricketts, who led the study by researchers at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. "We've never had to deal with something like this before."
The study was released the same day that New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin said residents of the city's Algiers section and business owners in other parts of the storm-ravaged city would be allowed back in to inspect property and clean up. But he cautioned those returning that the city remains without critical hospital services.
Ricketts' study found that 5,944 doctors were displaced in the 10 counties and parishes in Louisiana and Mississippi that were directly affected by Katrina-related flooding. That number covers doctors caring for patients, not those who are administrators or researchers, said Ricketts, a professor of health policy and administration at UNC's School of Public Health.
The finding is based on an analysis of American Medical Association data from March, information posted by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and other records.
More than two-thirds of the doctors displaced, or 4,486, came from the immediate New Orleans parishes of Orleans, Jefferson and St. Bernard.
More than half were specialists, with 1,292 in primary care and 272 in obstetrics and gynecology, the study said. Also, about 1,300 medical students at Tulane and Louisiana State University moved to other programs in the region, mostly in Baton Rouge and East Texas.
Among those displaced is Dr. Susan McLellan. Along with her family, she fled to Atlanta from New Orleans and her home near the 17th Street Canal, where a levee broke after Katrina hit.
When it became clear she could not return to her water-logged house or her job at Tulane University Hospital, she applied for a temporary medical license to practice in Georgia. A friend steered her to an AIDS clinic, where she volunteers three days a week, working to make sure about 45 AIDS patients who also fled Katrina are taking their medications.
"I don't want to jump ship," McLellan said. "But if I can be useful in Atlanta, then I will stay until I get called back."
Ricketts believes it is likely many doctors won't return. "This is both an opportunity for places that need physicians, as well as a dire problem for the population that will remain."
Dr. Mark Peters, the chief executive and president of East Jefferson General Hospital in the New Orleans suburb of Metairie, said those doctors who didn't flee are having a hard time making ends meet. Their patient loads dropped dramatically following the evacuation of the New Orleans area.
To help, he is trying to get the federal government to relax regulations that prohibit hospitals from providing free rent and office space to doctors.
"Physicians are no different than you or me. They have a mortgage payment. They have tuition payments," Peters said. "They are still here on their own good will, but they are not getting paid for it."
Peters, whose hospital remained open after Katrina struck, also said the cost of retaining a staff is much less than recruiting replacements.
"If they are (getting) offers of other opportunities throughout the country, for some, relocation can become very tempting," he said, "so that is why we feel like we have to be very supportive in all aspects of assisting them."
Tenet Healthcare Corp., which operates five hospitals in the New Orleans area, is helping physicians at its closed facilities to find jobs at the company's other hospitals.
"There are several physicians who are feeling like they want to stay in the New Orleans area," said Tenet spokesman Steven Campanini. "They want to stay any way they can and they are looking at the hospitals that are likely to offer services when New Orleans is restored."
Health Tip: Is Your Teen Drinking?
For many teenagers, alcohol is the drug of choice. It's used and abused more than any other substance, according to the Texas Medical Center.
Here are some signs your teen's drinking may be out of control:
Increased defiance. Failing grades. A sudden lapse in school attendance. Lying about where he's been or who he's been with. Giving up usual activities, such as sports and homework. Depressed attitude or mood swings. Weight loss, change in sleep habits or energy level. Mental confusion. Increased physical complaints, such as upset stomach, and headaches. Getting into trouble with the law. Traffic accidents. If this description sounds like your child, consult a professional.
Health Tip: Cap Your Child's Soda Habit
There's little doubt that the amount of soda kids drink has contributed to the obesity epidemic in the United States.
Help your child break his soda habit with these tips from the Texas Department of Health:
Save soda for a special treat. Stock your fridge with low-fat milk, fruit-flavored seltzers and low-sugar juices. Serve water with meals. Have a soda-free week once a month. Refrigerate only a few cans at a time. Buy large-size containers for special occasions only.