Mississippi is a heavily rural state, and so it’s no surprise that it’s hard to find doctors willing to work in its least populous counties.
Small towns and rural areas are losing the competition to attract educated and trained professionals who can make a difference in their communities. Perhaps nowhere is this more important than in medical care: Without doctors, rural hospitals will be unable to operate, no matter what the finances look like.
A report last year by the Association of American Medical Colleges ranked Mississippi 49th per capita in the number of primary care physicians, trailing only Utah.
Fortunately, there is some good news. A recent Mississippi Today story noted that a 14-year-old state effort to encourage doctors to work in rural areas seems to be working.
The Mississippi Rural Physicians Scholarship Program began in 2008, awarding 10 scholarships of $30,000 each to University of Mississippi Medical Center students. It has since expanded to include students at William Carey University’s College of Osteopathic Medicine. Charities and medical organizations also have contributed to the program.
As it takes a minimum of nine years to produce a fully trained physician, the program has only begun to show its results in the last few years. Right now, there are 55 practicing physicians in Mississippi who received money from the rural scholarship program. That may not seem like a lot for a state of 3 million people, but you can bet these doctors are lifesavers in the small communities where they are working.
What’s equally interesting is that, in a time when many college graduates seemingly can’t wait to get out of Mississippi, the program is doing a good job of finding future doctors who are interested in returning to their rural roots to practice medicine.
Scholarship recipients can choose from five fields: family medicine, obstetrics and gynecology, pediatrics, medical pediatrics or general internal medicine.
They are required to spend one year working in Mississippi for each year they accept state money. We’ll know soon how many of them decide that they can make a good living in a small community and stick around longer than their commitment requires.
Mississippi Today noted that half of the state’s residents live in “medically underserved” counties, described as having less than one primary care physician for every 2,000 people. Even though the scholarship program has helped, there’s a long way to go: The story said Mississippi needs another 323 doctors in rural areas to eliminate all underserved areas.
In all candor, that may never happen. There is no guarantee that enough medical school students will accept the state scholarship, and it also seems unlikely that as more time passes, close to 90% of doctors who received financial aid through the program will stay in Mississippi.
But more help is on the way: “Behind the 55 alumni are 64 people in residency, 64 in medical school, and 67 still completing their bachelor’s degrees,” Mississippi Today reported. This scholarship program is making a difference, one rural physician at a time.
— Jack Ryan, McComb Enterprise-Journal