by Candi Helseth
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 residents.
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 the scholarship.
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 Smith commented.
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.
Back to: Spring 2014 Issue