PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Finding a pediatrician in Rhode Island who is taking new patients is a tall order, according to parents and doctors who spoke to 12 News.

The R.I. Department of Health (RIDOH) said Rhode Island, like other states, is facing a shortage of pediatricians.

“This has to do with many factors, including burnout in the field, an aging workforce, and the appeal of other specialties in medicine,” RIDOH spokesperson Joseph Wendelken said in a statement.

“Another factor is that children have more well-visits as part of their care, meaning that pediatric offices often need more time than other primary care providers to treat the same number of patients,” he continued.

WATCH: What’s fueling the shortage

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‘Who on Earth is my child going to see?’

Heather Hawkins, who lives in Warren, had her second baby in November and was hoping to find a pediatrician close to home. The hospital where she gave birth required that she have an appointment with a pediatrician scheduled before she and her newborn could be discharged.

Hawkins called about five pediatricians in the Warren area — none were taking newborns.

“One whole day post-partum trying to figure out, who on Earth is my child going to see?” Hawkins recalled.

Hawkins was able to schedule an appointment with a pediatrician she had used for her older daughter, but that required a 40-minute drive.

“Panic-inducing a little bit, because it’s like, ‘Who’s going to be able to take care of my kids?'” Hawkins said.

Pay, workload, and an aging workforce

At Ocean State Pediatrics in East Greenwich, Dr. Howard Silversmith told 12 News their practice only takes newborns from families with existing patients there. They have to restrict the number of patients they take in to maintain the availability of same-day appointments.

With eight pediatricians on staff, the practice is looking to hire two more doctors to meet the demand. Their physicians are finding they need more time with each patient now because they often require mental health treatment in addition to their physicals.

“We do realize that there is a need in the state, and we are trying to fill that need where we get calls every day of patients that are looking to transfer into our practice,” Silversmith said.

Despite having open positions, Silversmith said it’s a “tough sell” to keep talent in the area because neighboring states pay pediatricians more.

“A very small percentage of people that would like to stay in primary care pediatrics because they’re coming out of medical school with hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of debt,” Silversmith said.

Dr. Peter Pogacar, of East Greenwich Pediatrics, echoed Silversmith’s concerns, saying insurers don’t pay well for pediatric medicine.

“If insurance companies in Massachusetts are paying 20% more than insurance companies in Rhode Island, those pediatricians, those pediatric practices, are generating 20% more revenue, so they take home 20% more,” Pogacar explained.

The Rhode Island chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics (RIAAP) represents about 200 members. In its 2019 survey, RIAAP found more than 32% of respondents planned to retire within five years and around 26% planned to retire in five to ten years.

“The ranks are just not being replaced, so as pediatricians are getting older in Rhode Island and retiring there aren’t people that are filling, backfilling and opening practices,” Pogacar, the RIAAP’s vice-president, said.

In a statement, the RIAAP said it expects the shortage to get “significantly worse” in the next 10 years or so. The same RIAAP survey asked pediatricians if their salary had changed in the past four years. Of the respondents, 62% said their salary has decreased, while 33% said their pay was steady and only 4% reported a raise.

Finding a pediatrician

The Health Department said parents searching for a pediatrician should try the following strategies:

  • If you have older kids, ask their pediatrician if they take new patients
  • Ask your insurance provider for a list of doctors taking new patients
  • Try outside your immediate area
  • Visit a community health center

Find a community health center »