ALBUQUERQUE, NM (KRQE) – Neurodegenerative diseases are devastating, and while New Mexico deals with a shortage of specialists who can help, the University of New Mexico Hospital is stepping up.

A Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services report from July listed New Mexico as a “neurology desert,” meaning there’s a gap between the available workforce and people’s health needs.

UNM Hospital has the only board-certified neurologists for sub-specialties like muscular neurology, epilepsy, dementia and other movement disorders, meaning patients from across the state have to drive to Albuquerque.

“Large areas of the state are without neurologists, whatsoever,” Outpatient Neurology Clinic Director Eugene Lesser said. “For example, for people to come to the ALS Clinic, they may have to drive five hours from Carlsbad.”

Dr. Lesser, who is also an assistant professor of neurology at UNM, specializes in electrical studies of nerves and muscles.

He said it’s hard to attract neurologists to the state because of the dispersed population and potentially lower pay.

“There are always practices advertising for additional neurology practitioners and they’re very hard to come by,” he said about the nationwide shortage.

Luckily, he said the hospital has been very successful over the past two to three years in hiring nine new people specializing in neuromuscular diseases, as well as in the stroke program because of demand. It’s the only academic stroke program in the state.

Of the four neuromuscular physicians in the department, Dr. Lesser is the only one in the ALS Clinic, so he sees the vast majority of ALS patients in the state. Since joining, the department ramped up from one clinic per month to three.

“One of our problems is we’ve not been able to communicate that adequately to outside physicians so some are still erroneously believing it’ll be months before you can get an ALS patient in the clinic,” he said.

He does want people to know the clinic will fit everyone in, likely in a matter of weeks and not months.

They don’t just provide services to patients across the state: He and his colleagues are involved in neuromuscular research and electromyography studies to help diagnose people with neuromuscular diseases.

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