Longtime Washington Rheumatology Alliance (WRA) President Jeff Peterson, MD, of Western Washington Medical Group, Bothell, Wash., and a clinical associate professor of medicine at the University of Washington, Seattle, knows there is an urgent need to recruit and train the next generation of rheumatologists and rheumatology professionals to close the widening workforce gap.1
“We have approximately 70 rheumatologists in Washington state,” Dr. Peterson says. “Yet many rural areas don’t have any [rheumatology providers].” In central Washington, he says, Wenatchee has two rheumatologists and Yakima has just one.
It’s not uncommon for patients in some of Washington’s more rural areas to drive three hours to see a rheumatologist, according to Dr. Peterson. The emergence of telehealth has allowed some patients in remote areas access to rheumatology care, but the uneven distribution of high-speed internet access still serves as a barrier to care.
A lack of rheumatologists in rural areas of Oregon and Idaho adds to wait times in Washington-based rheumatology practices because patients with rheumatic diseases in those neighboring states travel to Washington for care.
“For pediatric patients, there are even fewer choices for rheumatology care,” Dr. Peterson says. “There are only 350 pediatric rheumatologists in the entire country, with most at teaching hospitals. In Washington, Seattle Children’s Hospital has a pediatric rheumatology training program.”
To help meet the demand for rheumatology care, Dr. Peterson approached the University of Washington School of Nursing five years ago to offer a rheumatology-based, three-month clinical rotation to third-year students enrolled in the school’s Family and Adult Gerontology Nurse Practitioner (NP) programs.
“Our hope is that NP students who complete their clinical rotations in a rheumatology office [will] decide to stay in the field,” Dr. Peterson says. So far, five nurses have gone through the rheumatology rotation, with at least three opting for a career as a rheumatology nurse practitioner.
In his role as WRA president, a position he has held since 2004, Dr. Peterson encourages rheumatologists in the state to hire these NPs. He has also spoken to other state rheumatology organizations about WRA’s alliance with the University of Washington’s NP program and encouraged colleagues to consider launching similar programs in their own states.
As a student at the University of Washington, Melissa Fessel, DNP, ARNP, hadn’t yet chosen a specialty field when she learned about the opportunity to participate in a clinical preceptorship in rheumatology.