Legislature calls for new UNM center due to neurologist shortage

Rob Barteletti and his wife Karen St. Clair share a moment Friday (Feb. 2) in their kitchen over a cup of tea. Barteletti, who has Parkinson’s disease, has to hang on to the counter for stability. An estimated 10,000 New Mexicans have Parkinson’s and only three neurologists specialize in the treatment of the disease and similar conditions. Luis Sánchez Saturno/The New Mexican

Rob Barteletti falls down a lot.

The 69-year-old retired teacher, who moved to Santa Fe from Portland, Oregon, falls about 100 times a year, sometimes three times a day.

He’s been dealing with the falling, the tremors and the other ravages of Parkinson’s for 16 years. But when he and his wife Karen St. Clair first moved to New Mexico almost four years ago, they discovered another problem, one they didn’t have back in Oregon: a scarcity of medical options.

“When we moved here to Santa Fe to retire, the one thing we didn’t check out was how easy it was to get health care,” St. Clair said. “And what we discovered was that it was going to take him six months or more to see a movement disorder specialist.”

Barteletti is one of an estimated 10,000 people in the state who lives with Parkinson’s disease. The total number of those diagnosed with movement disorders in New Mexico is 250,000.

If those numbers are surprising, the number of movement disorder specialists available to treat these patients is downright shocking. There are three, all of whom practice in Albuquerque.

With so many mobility disorder patients and so few doctors, many people with Parkinson’s and other such ailments seek treatment out of state. “We just changed Rob’s insurance, so we can get treatment in Arizona,” St. Clair said.

Having so few specialists in the state is a challenge for both the patients and the doctors, Dr. Amanda Deligtisch said in a phone interview last week. Deligtisch, who has practiced at the University of New Mexico Hospital for the last seven years, is one of the state’s three neurologists with fellowship training in movement disorders.

“A routine wait for new patients is six to nine months, barring a cancellation or lucky phone call,” Deligtisch said.

“Routine follow-ups generally take about six months,” she added, although patients who recently have changed medications or are “doing something new” with their treatment usually can be seen sooner.

As a long-term effort to help with the Parkinson’s treatment shortage in the state, the New Mexico Parkinson’s Coalition, of which St. Clair is vice president, pushed a memorial through the Legislature that calls on The University of New Mexico to devise a plan to create a center for patients with movement disorders.

The measure passed both the House and Senate last week without a dissenting vote.

A movement disorder center at UNM would offer patients specialized care from neurologists certified to treat such disorders as well as other health care specialists. Backers of the legislation hope the center also would train more specialists in mobility disorders who could treat patients throughout the state.

Having a movement disorder center “would help us in a lot of ways,” Deligtisch said. “There’s a ton more we could offer patients. A center would allow us to get patients together with a physical therapist, an occupational therapist, a nurse practitioner [and] a neuropsychiatrist to come up with a treatment plan.”

A version of this story first published in the Santa Fe New Mexican, a sibling publication of The Taos News.

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