Mississippi health system trying for normalcy

After Hurricane Katrina, some physicians paused during office rebuilding so they could treat patients.

By Damon Adams — Posted Sept. 25, 2006

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Like New Orleans, parts of Mississippi still struggle to get their health care systems back on track more than a year after Hurricane Katrina.

An estimated 50 of more than 600 physicians have left parts of Mississippi hardest hit when Katrina struck the Gulf Coast on Aug. 29, 2005, including Bay St. Louis, Biloxi, Pascagoula and Gulfport, health leaders said. In some areas, patient loads are still down 50%, said James McIlwain, MD, president of Information & Quality Healthcare, the state's Medicare quality improvement organization.

Most primary care physicians have returned to practice. "Only about 1% of facilities were so damaged that they couldn't rebuild," he said.

Hancock Medical Center administrator Hal Leftwich said physicians treated patients while rebuilding. "We had doctors who were doing Sheetrocking [at their offices] and a patient would walk in."

Specialists, particularly orthopedic surgeons, general surgeons and neurosurgeons, have been slow to return. "There's just not enough to handle [hospital] call down there," said Eric Lindstrom, MD, MPH, president of the Mississippi State Medical Assn. and an ophthalmologist in Laurel, Miss.

Most hospitals were operating soon after the storm. Hancock Medical Center, however, had four feet of water on its first floor, causing $14 million in lost equipment. The Bay St. Louis hospital reopened in October 2005. "We delivered our first baby on Jan. 11. It's been kind of a steady progression back," Leftwich said.

Some groups have given aid to physicians in Louisiana and Mississippi. The American Medical Association Foundation set up the Health Care Recovery Fund to provide grants to help Gulf Coast physicians rebuild their practices after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. The fund began with $100,000 grants from both the AMA and Flight Attendant Medical Research Institute, and into June had awarded more than $704,000 to about 300 doctors, according to the AMA Foundation.

"The doctors who are here are relatively upbeat," Dr. Lindstrom said. "They're rebuilding and they're back to work."

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