Growing up in Cleveland, Miss., Brent Smith and his
family relied on Dr. David Walt to care for their medical
needs. Now Brent Smith, MD, is a family medicine
physician caring for patients in his hometown, working
side by side with Dr. Walt in an eight-physician
partnership at Cleveland Medical Clinic. Sixteen miles
from her hometown of Laurel, Miss., Dr. Amanda Smith
works as a family medicine physician at Sandersville
Family Clinic. The Doctors Smith are not related but they
do have common ground. Both are products of the
Mississippi Rural Physicians Scholarship Program
(MRPSP) created in 2007 by the Mississippi Legislature.
MRPSP is addressing Mississippi's health care crisis by
providing academic enrichment, faculty and physician
mentoring, and medical school financial support for
qualifying students, according to Executive Director
Wahnee Sherman. In turn, students commit to
practicing medicine in a Mississippi rural community with
a population fewer than 20,000.
“Mississippi has one of the highest physician
shortage rates in the country, specifically in rural
areas,” Sherman said. “Many of our
rural physicians are aging and there aren't many young
physicians to take their places. This program is
successfully addressing those needs.”
MRPSP supports students through their undergraduate
education, medical or osteopathic school, residency
training and into practice placement. Amanda and Brent
were already in medical school at the University of
Mississippi Medical Center (UMMC) when they joined MRPSP.
“I was in my final year of medical
school,” Dr. Amanda Smith said. “I
was going into family medicine but I wasn't sure if I
wanted to practice in a rural or urban setting. Deciding
to make that full commitment to rural medicine was a big
step.” When she accepted the position in
Sandersville, it was an even bigger step. The clinic is
the first ever in Sandersville, which has only 750
Graduates can choose the rural area where they want to
practice. Sherman said they carefully screen applicants,
looking for students from rural areas that have a sense
of responsibility and commitment to rural communities.
While MRPSP doesn't rule out urban applicants, Sherman
said it's more likely graduates familiar with rural
benefits and challenges will stay in rural communities.
At the undergraduate level, MRPSP students receive
support and mentoring. Once enrolled in medical school,
they receive a $30,000 scholarship each year (the average
cost of attendance at the UMMC is $54,000, with tuition
$24,349 of that total). In return, they agree to practice
one year in a rural community for each year they receive
Student loans become due immediately after finishing
residency so MRPSP's financial assistance
“helps make that jump easier to make and less
financially terrifying,” Dr. Brent Smith said.
“Without the established patient base and with
the upfront costs of starting a clinic, it can be
financially daunting to go into a small town even when
you know your practice will eventually grow.”
Sherman said most graduates join clinics or group
practices. Rural clinics and physician groups actively
recruit MRPSP graduates.
The state of Mississippi, the Medical Assurance Company
of Mississippi, the Selby and Richard McRae Foundation,
and the Madison Charitable Foundation contribute $1.59
million to MRPSP every year. Fifty-three medical students
are currently enrolled in MRPSP. By 2017, 21 new
graduates will be practicing in rural Mississippi.
“It takes a long time,” Sherman
commented. “We just graduated our first full
class this past year. This program is a long-term
commitment to healthcare and economic development in
Mississippi. A doctor has an average economic impact of
$500,000, and the additional healthcare impact can
average $2 million. Our hope is that these new physicians
will get involved in their communities and want to stay
there a long, long time.”
Both Smiths appear to be there for the long haul. Dr.
Brent Smith says he enjoys caring for friends and family
he has known all his life. He wants to give them services
they need in their hometown so they don't have to travel
long distances for health care.
“I particularly enjoy getting to be a part of a
tight-knit community and getting to know families and
participate in their health care,” Dr. Amanda
Last year, the Legislature approved a rural dental
recruitment program that provides $35,000 a year in
financial support with similar student commitments to
rural practice. While Mississippi doesn't have a shortage
of dentists overall, Sherman said, towns with less than
10,000 residents lack dentists.
For more information about Mississippi's programs,
contact Wahnee Sherman at 601-815-9026.