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Physicians, hospitals and medical associations sound the alarm on Idaho's expanding OBGYN desert

A silhouette of a pregnant person's stomach and hand on top.
Manuel Alejandro Leon

Physicians, hospitals and Idaho’s top medical associations are sounding the alarm on the state’s OBGYN crisis, saying the state’s strict abortion bans are causing confusion among healthcare professionals and leading to staff shortages.

At a presentation at the capitol on Wednesday, OBGYNs, doctors, hospital heads and healthcare representatives urged legislators to clarify state law, saying Idaho code conflicts with a physician's duty of care.

Director of the Idaho Medical Association Susie Keller said legal uncertainty has caused fear among doctors.

“Idaho's abortion laws make it difficult, if not impossible, for physicians to take care of some pregnancy complications that could affect a woman's future fertility or her health,” she said.

A recent study published by the Idaho Coalition for Safe Healthcare showing Idaho lost 22% of its OBGYNs since the state’s strict abortion bans went into effect in 2022.

Boise OBGYN Dr. Sara Thomson said the law should be updated so doctors can take care of their patients without fear of prosecution. Under Idaho law, providers can face felony charges, lose their medical license and face up to five years in prison for terminating a pregnancy that doesn’t fall under narrow exceptions.

“We want to be legally secure in our work, and that's hard to do right now because the laws were not written in a way that compassionately considers some of the pregnancy complications that we encounter,” she said.

Idaho code allows physicians to perform abortions to prevent the death of a patient. But Thomson said doctors have an ethical duty to intervene before their patients’ health deteriorates to a life-threatening emergency.

“Waiting is bad medicine and can be malpractice,” Thomson said, adding complicated cases are neither hypothetical nor rare. “As physicians, we're trained to intervene when we recognize sickness, not to watch an illness move along that line until death approaches.”

“Obstetricians don't want to be in a situation where we are having to test the boundaries of the law or perform acts of civil disobedience to protect our patients,” she said.

The U.S. Supreme Court will determine if Idaho’s bans conflict with federal mandates at the end of April. Under the Emergency Medical Treatment and Labor Act, hospitals and doctors are required to treat patients until their medical emergency is stabilized or resolved, which can include providing abortion care. Until then, presenters asked lawmakers to consider the impact of abortion laws that do not clearly provide guarantees for pregnant women facing emergency medical situations.

Director of the Idaho Hospital Association Brian Whitlock said physicians are not interested in working in Idaho anymore, leading to severe workforce shortages.

“Hospital administrators are telling us that the lack of clarity in Idaho's legal environment regarding maternal health care has created uncertainty and fear, and candidates are now looking elsewhere to practice,” he said.

A study by the Association of American Medical Colleges predicts the United States will have a national shortage of 86,000 physicians by 2036. This shortage, already underway across the country, is expected to affect rural communities the most. Idaho does not offer an OBGYN residency program and health care facilities have to recruit new practitioners or maternal fetal medicine specialists from outside the state.

Dr. Jim Souza, chief physician executive for St Luke’s Health System spoke about the intricate system of care necessary to serve patients, which depends on several components to function. Those include scientific innovation, research development, treatment production and delivery, regulatory oversight and physicians.

“After decades of advancement in the safety and efficacy of women's health care, we're seeing a significant degradation in that system.” He said this will lead to increased medical complications for women and their children.

“We're seeing significant changes in recruiting and retention in recruiting,” he added, saying positions that previously were filled in weeks are remaining open for months or are just not getting filled at all.

“Idaho is digging itself into a workforce hole that will take many years, if not decades to fill,” Keller said, urging lawmakers to add maternal health exceptions to Idaho’s abortion bans.

“But before we can stabilize the environment and move forward, we have to stop digging,’ she added.

I joined Boise State Public Radio in 2022 as the Canyon County reporter through Report for America, to report on the growing Latino community in Idaho. I am very invested in listening to people’s different perspectives and I am very grateful to those who are willing to share their stories with me. It’s a privilege and I do not take it for granted.