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Wednesday, April 7, 2010 as of 11:14 AM ET


Marla Cichowski



Solving The Rural Health Care Crisis

February 12, 2010 - 2:27 PM | by: Marla Cichowski

Across the country 35 million people live in places where they do not have adequate access to a family doctor.  Health care experts call it a “crisis” that’s only getting worse.  To help fix the problem, the federal government advised medical schools to increase their enrollment by 30 percent, a strategy that’s easier said than done as states slash budgets for public universities.  Now, more and more medical schools are teaming up with hospitals to tackle the problem together.

In Terre Haute, Indiana, the Richard G. Lugar Center for Rural Health focuses on increasing health care access to people in rural areas by creating a rural medical training program for med students at Indiana University’s School of Medicine’s Terre Haute campus.

The Rural Health Center’s Medical Director, Dr. James Turner, says Indiana currently needs roughly 2,000 family physicians to meet patient demand, but it takes essentially 11 years of schooling (undergrad, med school and medical residency) to become a practicing physician. “When a local mayor calls us and says do you have someone ( for us, you say, ‘Mayor I’m sorry 11 years from now is the best we can do.’ There’s definitely a challenge to recruit and retain people in rural areas.”

For med students in Terre Haute, the application process for the rural training program includes a 2 page written essay about why they want to practice rural medicine.  Each applicant is also interviewed by a panel of people who are leaders from local communities, with no ties to medicine. “We bring in local mayors, farm bureau people, etc. It’s really an opportunity to be interviewed and understand their (applicants) personality and wonder whether they want to practice in rural Indiana and if they have the right personality for that type of practice,” says Dr. Turner.

He also points out, every primary care doctor hired in a small town has a direct impact on the town’s economy. “Some studies show a rural health physician brings about 22 jobs into a community when they come … and adds $1.5 million into the local economy and puts about $2 million into a local hospital each year.”  Dr. Turner estimates, the 21 medical students currently enrolled in the rural training program will probably bring about 500 jobs and 35 million dollars into rural Indiana, once they become family doctors. “This program brings highly educated people back into the rural community to help people grow for a long time.” 

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