Mississippi Rural Physicians Scholarship Program Executive Director Wahnee Sherman speaks with Richi Lesley, a visitor to Columbus Rotary on Tuesday. Sherman spoke about the rural physicians scholar program, which awards $120,000 scholarships to Mississippi medical students who open practices in areas of the state with a serious shortage of doctors. Photo by: Isabelle Altman/Dispatch Staff
June 20, 2018 10:52:11 AM
Growing up in a small community outside Aberdeen, Cali Edwards remembers her family having to drive the 30 miles to Columbus just to see doctors.
It resulted in days off work, paying for food and trying to coordinate with other people who could take care of kids who didn't need to go to the doctor -- not just for Edwards' family, but for other people in Aberdeen, Edwards said. Low income families are particularly hard-hit in those circumstances, she said, because taking off from works can mean a significant loss of income.
"It's a lot that plays into ... having to travel," she said. "It's not just, 'Oh, I have to go to a doctor that's 30 miles away.' It's not such a small ordeal."
Now the rising senior studying biology at Mississippi University for Women plans to go to medical school and eventually become an OBGYN. It was at MUW that she learned about the Mississippi Rural Physicians Scholarship Program, which aims to place more -- and younger -- physicians in the rural parts of the state.
Funded by the Mississippi Legislature, MRPSP awards four-year scholarships of $120,000 for medical students in the state who open practices in rural areas with small populations and either aging doctors or no doctors at all. The idea is to mitigate a critical shortage of doctors in the state, especially in small communities.
"(In Mississippi) we always get to be at the top of the list that you don't want to be at the top of and the bottom of the list that you don't want to be at the bottom of," MRPSP executive director Wahnee Sherman told the Columbus Rotary Tuesday. "We have the highest physician shortage rate in the country."
That's the reason a group of family doctors in 2007 went to the Legislature and asked it to fund MRPSP, she said. The idea was to find would-be medical students like Edwards, award them the scholarship and mentor them through the process of becoming a doctor or dentist. (The dental program was added in 2013.) It's a nine-year program that starts when the students are undergraduates and takes them all the way through their three-year residency, Sherman said. Though they receive dozens of applicants per year, only between 15 and 25 students are actually awarded the scholarship, and then only after a rigorous application involving letters of recommendation, essays and interviews with rural doctors from around the state.
Once they complete medical school and their residency and are placed, the doctors are required to stay in their rural areas for at least four years. If they leave, they are required to pay the money back at 6 percent interest.
Sherman compared it to Teach for America, with the addition that those teachers often only stay in the rural areas where they teach for a handful of years -- these doctors often stay in their communities permanently.
"We're about taking Mississippians, training them, helping them become doctors and dentists and then putting them back out into communities," Sherman said. "Most of them into their hometowns or near their hometowns."
A dearth of rural doctors
Since 2010, the program has taken Mississippi from having a doctor-patient ratio of 160 per 100,000 to 186 per 100,000. Since the program began, the Legislature has awarded $12.6 million in scholarships and has placed 25 physicians in different areas around the state, including West Point, Amory and Columbus. Dozens more are in the pipeline once they complete medical training.
Originally, Sherman said, the doctors end up in communities of 20,000 people or fewer, though that number recently decreased to 15,000. New dentists are sent to communities of 10,000 or fewer.
"We used to joke if you had a Walmart, you were too big for the dental program," Sherman said.
But there are exceptions, which is the reason Dr. William Rosenblatt ended up practicing in Columbus at Baptist Memorial Hospital-Golden Triangle. Rosenblatt's specialty was internal medicine.
"The untold story of Columbus is, my goodness, there's a shortage of physicians in Columbus," Rosenblatt said.
When Rosenblatt joined the community a year ago, there were only two other internists and one doctor who split her time between internal medicine and pediatric medicine, Rosenblatt said -- a major shortage in a community the size of Lowndes County.
Rosenblatt said he had always been interested in rural medicine because when he grew up in a small town on the Mississippi River, the doctors were the "go-to people in the town."
"The appeal of knowing people over many, many years in a small town community was incredibly appealing to me," he said. "I didn't want to be anonymous to my patients."
He thinks he would have become a doctor even without MRPSP, but pointed out the financial incentive is more likely to place and keep doctors in rural communities -- even if those doctors, like him, always wanted to practice rural medicine.
"It sure would have made the temptation to do something more lucrative much more appealing, I think," Rosenblatt said. "When you level the playing field from the money standpoint and the student debt that you're carrying, you get to really dig deep and prioritize what you value and actually want to do as a career rather than having reimbursement factor in -- in a big way -- to that equation."
Edwards said it's a relief knowing the scholarship will pay for tuition to medical school. She's not sure she could go otherwise -- at least not without taking "a load of student loans."
"My family's not the wealthiest," Edwards said. "I'm pretty sure they would make a way for me, but it would be a struggle for me to try to go to medical school and be able to pay for it on my own, along with paying for housing and having transportation and stuff like that. That would be a major issue."
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