- Associated Press - Monday, February 9, 2015

TUPELO, Miss. (AP) - Even with the challenges facing primary care in rural Mississippi, a group of medical students is stepping up to answer the call.

“I know what it’s like not to have medical service,” said Summer Bailey, a third-year University of Mississippi School of Medicine medical student from Lorman in southwest Mississippi.

Bailey, along with Daniel Hester of Tupelo, Stephen Morgan of Vardaman, Craig Bullock of Blue Springs and Hannah Barrett of Pattinson are among the 55 medical students who have committed to serving four years in rural primary care as part of the Mississippi Rural Physicians Scholarship Program.

Both primary care and making a professional life in rural Mississippi require a certain mind-set.

“I just like the smaller-town environment,” said Hester, a third-year medical student. “You’re more integrated into the community.”

Hester worked in Indianola during his family medicine rotation and enjoyed the opportunity to do a little bit of everything.

“It’s a challenge,” Hester said. “I like a challenge; the need drives you.”

After years of recruiting doctors into Mississippi to serve rural areas, the health care profession is systematically investing in rural students with an affinity for medicine in a “grow your own” strategy.

Morgan said he’s seen a disconnect with rural areas among his peers. During a summer program at the University of Mississippi, Morgan remembers going around the room. Most of the other students there had no idea where Vardaman was.

“If no one knows who people are, why should they want to come help them?” Morgan said.

When people don’t have good access to care, the system doesn’t work as well as it could.

Barrett, a second-year student whose hometown lies between Vicksburg and Port Gibson, watched what happened to her grandfather when he was diagnosed with late-stage liver cancer. If he had easier access to primary care perhaps the cancer would have been caught at an earlier, more treatable stage.

“I want to be that for somebody,” Barrett said. “Primary care is really at the heart of everything. It’s the best way to go toward a healthier Mississippi.”

Medical scholarships for service in underserved areas are well-established including the National Health Service Corps, and there have been other programs in Mississippi.

Mississippi Rural Physicians Scholarship Program began in 2008 with a specific aim of developing students from rural areas to go back and serve those areas.

“In smaller communities, a lot of physicians are getting close to retirement,” said Wahnee Sherman, the program’s executive director. “They saw people weren’t coming behind those doctors.”

Additionally, students coming from rural backgrounds are often at a disadvantage because they had limited access to high-level math and science courses in high school and may not have the networking opportunities guiding them toward a career in medicine.

The rural medical scholars program includes a two-year undergraduate component. Students get a deep exposure to rural primary care. The students attend the Mississippi Rural Health Association Conference, shadow physicians for at least 40 hours and participate in medical encounters, along with entrance exam prep.

During those undergraduate years, there are no strings attached if the student decides primary care or medicine isn’t where they want to go.

“We’re trying to help them solidify their choice,” Sherman said. “Can they be a doctor in rural primary care?”

That exposure made the difference for Bullock.

“I probably would not be on a primary care track,” without his experiences in the program, said Bullock, a second-year medical student. “There’s a personal connection you can make in primary care.”

The medical encounter weekends also helped him decide what he didn’t want to do in primary care. The live birth simulator convinced him that obstetrics was not his cup of tea. He’s considering pursuing an internal medicine or internal medicine-pediatrics residency.

The medical school scholarship makes a difference, especially when you consider primary care doctors will make between $150,000 to $180,000 annually; roughly half what specialists in the most lucrative fields will make, Morgan said.

The $30,000 annual scholarship covers tuition and some materials at UMMC and most of the $38,000 tuition at William Carey School of Osteopathic Medicine in Hattiesburg.

Most of their classmates will come out of med school with $120,000 to $150,000 in loans, Morgan said. The rural medical scholars expect to owe half that in loans they’ve taken on to cover living expenses during four years of school.

The rural medical scholars program currently has four doctors practicing in rural clinics in Sandersville, Louisville, Crystal Springs and Cleveland, Sherman said. Behind them are 24 young doctors in residency programs, as well as the 55 on scholarship at the University of Mississippi School of Medicine and William Carey College of Osteopathic Medicine.

“It’s a long-term investment,” Sherman said. “It takes a long time to grow a doctor.”

By 2017, the rural medical scholars will have 30 new primary care doctors.

“It would be a great problem to have too many young doctors,” Sherman said. “We’re a long way from that.”

___

Information from: Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal, https://djournal.com


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