The University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences has received $2.83 million to address a shortage of doctors in rural parts of the state. The funding is the latest from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which previously awarded $4.6 million to the program.
Dr. Richard Turnage, executive associate dean for clinical affairs at UAMS’ College of Medicine, is overseeing the program to train, then retain primary care physicians in medically underserved areas. A goal is to attract medical students from the communities to increase the likelihood that they will be successful in their applications and time in medical school.
“The theory behind that is that individuals who come from rural communities will have a greater likelihood of going back and practicing in rural communities,” Turnage said. “Then also an important part of this program is to enhance the exposure of our medical students to practices in rural and underserved communities.”
Over 500,000 Arkansans — more than one-sixth of the state’s population — live in areas defined by the federal government as lacking an adequate number of healthcare professionals. That has a tremendous impact on communities not only in terms of health and quality of life, but also economically. This can impact the ability of rural communities to attract businesses and keep people employed, he said.
Requiring people to make longer drives to have appointments with doctors compared to those in cities is another factor.
“I think it also impacts the health of the people that live within those communities, because you can imagine here in Little Rock, it’s going to be a five or 15 minute drive to get to your primary care provider. But in some Arkansas communities, it will be a lot longer than that, and then also to get to a specialist can be an all-day affair,” Turnage said.
COVID-19 has created an additional strain on the infrastructure of rural communities, he said, with the potential to affect the outcomes of diseases. The availability of specialty doctors and physicians in some areas is especially acute.
“With the early diagnosis and early treatment of these patients and the early referral to centers for people that require an advanced level of care,” Turnage said, “absolutely, it has an impact.”
In a press release, UAMS Chancellor Cam Patterson said the physician shortage is a pressing issue that is getting worse.
“If action is not taken, Arkansas will soon have more medical school graduates than residency positions, forcing graduates to pursue residency training outside of the state," Patterson said.
Sen. John Boozman of Arkansas cosponsored legislation last year to address the issue. In an August 2019 interview with KUAR News, he said a 1977 cap on Medicare funding resulted in a shortage of available residencies across the state.
“We have a situation where we have a lot of people graduating from medical school and then can’t find residencies in Arkansas. So as a result, probably 40 percent of them go out of state. Many never come back,” Boozman said.