U.S. Sen. Ben Ray Luján has firsthand experience with the rural healthcare system that he brought with him to discussions this week. 

The Democrat who represents New Mexico had a stroke while in northern New Mexico on Jan. 27, 2022.

Through a series of smart decisions by his sister Jackie, Luján’s life was saved, he said.

She rushed the senator to Christus St. Vincent Hospital in Santa Fe. She stopped on the way there at a fire station in a town called Pawtucket near the Luján home. An EMT and a paramedic were cleaning an ambulance that morning.

Before Jackie could fully explain the situation, the EMT and paramedic got Ben Ray Lujan out of the car and into the ambulance they were cleaning, Ben Ray Lujan said.

“They began to treat me. They didn’t know who I was, they saw a patient that needed help,” Luján said at a community discussion about healthcare workforce needs.

He was taken to Christus St. Vincent Hospital where he was transferred to the University of New Mexico Trauma Center.

“Everyone should be able to get that level of care. No matter where you live, what your zip code is, whatever it may be,” Luján said.

Luján hosted a community discussion about New Mexico’s healthcare workforce’s needs Wednesday during a visit to Albuquerque Healthcare for the Homeless in Downtown Albuquerque.

The issues discussed included the Extension for Community Healthcare Outcomes, known as Project ECHO, workforce recruitment and retention and telemedicine.

Project ECHO is a learning framework based on the way clinicians learn through their residencies and medical rounds.

“Our sole purpose for existence, of course, is equity that was why it was created. But we want to create a capable, resilient and equitable healthcare workforce,” Project ECHO Founder and Director Sanjeev Arora, MD said.

Project ECHO participants are part of a virtual community with peers where support, guidance and feedback are shared as a means of a collective understanding of how to disseminate and implement best practices across diverse disciplines continuously improves and expands,” the UNM Project ECHO website states.

Workforce recruitment and retention

New Mexico has experienced a medical provider shortage since at least 2009, and it has gotten worse in the intervening years.

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Deputy Chief of Staff Angela Ramirez was at the community discussion on behalf of U.S. Department of Health and Human Services  Secretary Xavier Becerra who was unable to attend due to a delayed flight.

“The solution to this crisis is not simply more doctors, nurses and health workers,” Ramirez said. “We also need more doctors who share common histories and values with the communities.”

Ramirez mentioned the healthcare worker shortage as an issue with a solution in three parts: improve the workforce pipeline, address retention and recruitment and address career advancement opportunities.

“These are three separate work streams but of course they’re connected. We have to address this crisis,” Ramirez said.

Dr. Andres Gensini, the Vice President of Clinical Affairs at Presbyterian Medical Services, described workplace stress has gone up due to the provider shortage and the housing shortage.

“Creating more stress to the current clinician shortage of clinical support staff, not only clinicians are costing further strain in that system, meaning that the clinicians that are left behind are having to see more and more patients,” Gensini said.

The nurse shortage has also hit New Mexico hard. New Mexico has 16,181 nurses and nurse specialists practicing in the state with an average age of 46, according to Dr. Gloria Doherty of the New Mexico Nurses Association.

New Mexico needs 5,704 more nurses, across all counties, to hit the national benchmark, Doherty said.

New Mexico’s nurses are also leaving the profession for a variety of reasons including staffing, work-life balance, emotional support to lower the risk of suicide* among nurses.

“Nurses are also two times more likely than the general population to commit suicide and, unfortunately, we’ve seen a lot of that,” Doherty said.

She also said that some standards need to be addressed such as ending mandatory overtime and preventing workplace violence.

Telemedicine and rural broadband expansion

Brenna A. Gartner is in the University of New Mexico Nursing Program in Albuquerque studying to be a psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner.

Gartner worked as a nurse in an inpatient psychiatric unit during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I saw at that time how difficult it was to find resources for patients when they were discharged,” Gartner told the NM Political Report.

Brenna A. Gartner is in the University of New Mexico Nursing Program studying to be a psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner.
Brenna A. Gartner is in the University of New Mexico Nursing Program studying to be a psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner.

One of the issues is how rural New Mexico is and how that can be detrimental to someone trying to get medical or psychiatric help. One of the ways that is helping is telemedicine, or telehealth, where patients and providers can talk to each other via video or regular phone call. 

“So telehealth makes healthcare a lot more accessible versus, for example, this week I had a patient from Deming who normally would have to drive six hours to get healthcare,” Gartner said. “So as long as somebody is able to meet the technological requirements, I think it’s been really helpful especially for psychiatric/mental health because much of our assessment can be done over that.”

To help with connectivity, Luján and the Joe Biden administration have worked to expand broadband to rural areas across New Mexico. 

In July, during a tour promoting Biden’s Invest in America programs, White House Infrastructure Coordinator Mitch Landrieu announced that Plateau Communications had received a $49 million middle mile grant to expand broadband connectivity along a 150 mile corridor in rural central New Mexico.

The $103 million project will cover State Highway 14 and State Highway 333, also known as Old Route 66 and will take about five years to complete.

Santo Domingo Pueblo was also awarded$12.7 million through the Tribal Broadband Connectivity Program as part of the Investing in America agenda.
Note: *If you or someone you know is in emotional distress or considering self-harm or suicide, call or text the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or 988.


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