- Associated Press - Saturday, June 3, 2017

LAS CRUCES, N.M. (AP) - University of New Mexico student Connie Hu has plans to return to Las Cruces, where she was born and raised, to practice medicine after completing medical school and a medical residency.

“I love New Mexico, so I plan to work at one of the hospitals or open my own practice,” she said. “Since I’ve lived here so long, I know I want to come back to Las Cruces and serve it.”

The 20-year-old Hu is among 112 undergraduate students and 101 medical school students who are enrolled in the University of New Mexico’s combined bachelor’s and medical degree program for the upcoming academic year.

The state-funded program provides financial support for students who are committed to practicing medicine in New Mexico’s medically underserved communities.

When students complete their undergraduate requirements, they enter the UNM School of Medicine to complete their doctor of medicine degree.

The Las Cruces Sun-News reports (https://bit.ly/2saGT9H ) the program is one solution to the physician shortage in New Mexico and addressing the health care needs of the state’s rural population.

In Las Cruces, Burrell College of Osteopathic Medicine, which welcomed its first class in August 2016, is also working to address this problem.

Valerie Romero-Leggott, vice chancellor and chief diversity officer at the UNM Health Sciences Center and executive director of the UNM combined degree program, said all but one of the state’s 33 counties have health professional shortages.

“In any county you find some pockets where we may not have enough providers in the rural outer areas of those counties,” Romero-Leggott said.

According to a 2016 report, counties in New Mexico with the greatest shortage of primary care physicians include Valencia, Lea, Otero, Torrance and Luna. The highest concentration of primary care physicians was in Bernalillo County, the most populous area.

The challenges in getting physicians to work and stay in rural areas include feelings of isolation and lack of activities for families and children, Romero-Leggott said.

Rural areas also may not pay as well, making it more difficult for physicians to pay off student loan debt, said George Mychaskiw, the founding dean and chief academic officer at Burrell College.

Offering loan forgiveness programs at the state level and tax breaks can help make New Mexico attractive, he said.

Another challenge is that students who leave the state to complete their medical residency often don’t return to practice medicine.

“We’ve created around 124 new residency positions in the Las Cruces area over the last couple of years,” Mychaskiw said. “Over time, we hope to expand it to 400 to 500 residency positions in areas such as orthopedic surgery, family medicine and internal medicine and others.”

The college’s first class will graduate in 2020.

At UNM, 28 students are admitted each year from high school into the combined degree program and receive a conditional admission to the School of Medicine. Officials say five residency graduates will return this year to practice medicine in New Mexico.

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Information from: Las Cruces Sun-News, https://www.lcsun-news.com

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