Select Page

Country doctor: A doctor who is not a specialist, but treats all illnesses. —

Stethoscope in hand, a balding middle-aged doctor looks benignly at an infant held in his mother’s arms.

The child’s eyes are riveted on the doctor, and the mother is watching the doctor intently, trying to interpret his expression as well as hear his words.

We have no way of knowing the diagnosis, for this scene was a painting titled “Norman Rockwell Visits a Family Doctor,” which the artist created in April 1947.

It could have been the office of any rural general practitioner after World War II, when waves of The Greatest Generation came home to get on with their lives and careers, and many of them were in a hurry.

Lambert Holland, born in Brookings and raised in Elkton, obtained his medical degree so he could practice in rural South Dakota. In Gregory for two years before moving to Chamberlain, he set broken bones, aided in the delivery of about 3,000 babies and helped folks combat their injuries and maladies for 52 years. When he died last week at 96, his family said he lived in a small town all his professional life “because he saw the great need for medical care, especially in rural areas.”

The need remains.

South Dakota tried to address this in 1974 by expanding the medical school at the University of South Dakota from two to four years and adding residency programs. Doctor numbers in this state grew, but most of the growth was at the east and west ends of the state – where most people live.

South Dakota does not have a doctor shortage problem as much as a distribution problem. Eighteen of 66 counties have no doctor.

Such is the nature of a rural state.

But, there are those who, like Dr. Holland, want to practice in a rural area. Randall Waldner, Redfield, is one of these.

“I want to be a small town family doctor and I want to go home,” Waldner told South Dakotan MD, a publication about the USD School of Medicine.

Still, most med school graduates gravitate to Sioux Falls, Rapid City, or the state’s handful of smaller cities, such as Mitchell, Watertown or Aberdeen.

In recent years, the challenge has been partially addressed by the expansion of the certified nurse practitioner and physician assistant programs, with an emphasis on communities of 10,000 or less.

It’s about the best that can be done.

Thank goodness for the Dr. Hollands of the world.

April 20, 2016