By Paula Clawson, Program Manager at UAB School of Medicine
Just about every doctor in Alabama treats at least some rural patients as part of their practice. If you’re a primary care doctor, these could be patients you built a relationship with during residency, or to whom you came highly recommended by one of their city relatives. If you’re a specialist, the odds are these patients have to drive into urban areas to get specialized care.
Based on 2010 census data (the 2020 data has not yet been analyzed for this), about 20 percent of Americans live in rural areas, but only 10 percent of physicians practice rural. Research has shown that patients who can get their primary medical care closer to home have less need of specialists and overall better health outcomes.
So, how do we get more primary care providers to choose a rural Alabama practice? There is plenty of literature on the factors that influence a medical student to become a rural doctor, with the most oft cited reason being that these doctors grew up in rural communities.
But just because a student or resident is from Bug Tussle, Camden or Evergreen, doesn’t meant they will go back home to practice. Every physician’s decision about practice location is unique, with guidance and mentorship during the training years being a strong influencer.
The UAB Marnix E. Heersink School of Medicine provides guidance for rural students through several programs supported by the Huntsville Regional Medical Campus. It starts in high school, when UAB Heersink students from rural Alabama make presentations at their high school alma maters on “My Pathway to Medical School.” This demonstrates to small town teenagers that geography doesn’t dictate career choice.
College students from rural Alabama can participate in a summer Huntsville Rural Premedical Internship (the Tuscaloosa campus has a similar program) spending more than 100 hours shadowing primary care physicians, including two weeks with one of their hometown physicians.
Admission to UAB Heersink School of Medicine can come under the umbrella of the Rural Medicine Program (RMP) for the Huntsville campus or a similar program on the Tuscaloosa campus. The Huntsville admission route includes a post graduate year at Auburn University in studies that provide a strong background for medical school – such as histology and genetics. That year also provides clinical education with four Auburn-area, UAB trained, family medicine doctors. The RMP students tell us these clinical experiences provides them a comfort level with patients during medical school that is often greater than other students.
During medical school RMP students participate in national conferences that focus on rural and primary care medicine; have special week-long exposures to rural practice; and receive financial assistance to purchase study materials.
Throughout these experiences, starting with the high school students, the directors of the Rural Medicine Program develop relationships to encourage their journey to rural practice. RMP was established by they late Dr. Bill Coleman of Scottsboro, and is currently directed by Dr. John Irle of Decatur with assistance from Dr. David Bramm of Huntsville.
In all, this “Pathway to Rural Medicine” has proven effective. Since the first RMP doctors finished residency in 2014, the program has produced 33 primary care doctors for rural Alabama and another 24 in urban Alabama.
If you know a pre-medical student who would be interested in the summer program or the Rural Medicine Program at the UAB Heersink School of Medicine, here’s how to find us: