MANATEE -- As six young doctors donned their snow-white medical coats for the first time, a roomful of well-wishers learned their names and, notably, their home towns.
They come from Mesa, Ariz., and Mobile, Ala., from Clermont, Fla., and Honolulu, Hawaii, from Port-au-Prince, Haiti, and Heilongjiang province, China.
The three men and three women are the first class of medical residents at Manatee Memorial Hospital -- the first residents in the county’s history. For them, the white coats mark the transition from medical school to clinical training.
But the assembled doctors, politicians and business leaders see them as the beginning of a cure, a remedy to the dwindling number of physicians both in Manatee and statewide.
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In 2008, a University of South Florida study examined health care in Manatee County. One main finding: The county has too few doctors.
The study, commissioned by the Manatee Chamber Foundation, found the county had 538 physicians, and just 46 family practitioners.
That comes to 276 doctors and 14 family practitioners per 100,000 residents, both well below state averages.
Moreover, that number is expected to start falling dramatically.
The Manatee County Medical Society surveyed its members and found that of the roughly 300 actively practicing, 145 were loder than 50.
That mirrors a 2008 study by the state Health Department, which found that nearly one-quarter of doctors were 65 or older and planning to retire.
“There are not enough young physicians to fill the gap,” said Dr. Aaron Sudbury, the society’s past president. “And one of the big things we’re lacking here is family practice physicians.”
The USF study recommended that Manatee County develop a medical residency program to recruit the needed physicians, especially family practitioners.
Manatee Memorial began building the program soon after the study’s release, said Dr. Catherine Cooper, a family practitioner who will supervise the residents.
The residency is a three-year program and the hospital expects to add more eight-resident classes in coming years, she said. It also may add a one-year residency for medical specialties.
The program is for osteopathic physicians, who receive a Doctor of Osteopathic degree. Allopathic physicians are more common and receive an M.D. degree.
The hospital received hundreds of applications for eight slots, but eventually trimmed it to six positions. “We were very particular about the people we wanted to start the program,” Cooper said.
Of the six residents, three intend to be family practice doctors and three plan to go into internal medicine.
Despite their varied backgrounds, most are familiar with the region. Two received undergraduate degrees from USF, and three graduated from Lake Erie College of Osteopathic Medicine in Lakewood Ranch.
Studies have shown that doctors commonly settle within 50 miles of their residency, so supporters hope the program will help them become sure they want to practice here.
“When they do their residencies here, they get to know the community and get to know what it’s like to practice medicine here, and they put roots down,” Sudbury said.
So far, the residents say they like what they see.
Dr. Rebecca Workman received a master’s degree in public health from New Orleans’ Tulane University, graduating just before Hurricane Katrina struck the city. She worked in disaster relief and realized she wanted to practice medicine, so she went back to school at LECOM.
“I really like it here,” she said. “I’m from Alabama, and Bradenton has a small Southern-town feel to it.”
Dr. Jhonstanley Searcy-Schnaeidr came from Haiti to Florida Atlantic University, then to medical school in Virginia. He chose Manatee Memorial over residencies in New Jersey and Michigan.
“Florida has always been the place for me. It’s the quality of life,” he said.
Dr. Tian Davis said she came to the United States from China in 2000 knowing little English. She studied in community college, then transferred to USF, getting a degree in biomedical science. She received her medical degree from LECOM.
“I definitely want to stay here,” she said in flawless English. “This is my second home.”