Our View: Rural doctor program could be model for reducing brain drain




Healthcare in Mississippi is a lot like the weather: Everybody talks about it, but no one does anything about it. 


When it comes to healthcare, Mississippi rates at or near the bottom by almost every standard that can be measured. Among the categories where the state ranks dead last is access to medical doctors.  


But this is one of those rare instances where Mississippi isn't just talking about doctor shortages, it is actually doing something about it. 


In 2007, a group of doctors approached the Mississippi legislature for funding to provide scholarships for medical students who would then commit to practice in rural areas of the state or, in some cases, non-rural areas where there is a particular shortage of certain kinds of doctors. The legislature began funding what is known as the Mississippi Rural Physicians Scholarship Program in 2008. Ten medical school students at University of Mississippi Medical Center were awarded $30,000 per year over four years.  


In 2010, there were 160 doctors per 100,000 residents in the state.  


While Mississippi continues to rank last in the number of doctors per capita, there are now 186 doctors per 100,000 residents. That's a remarkable increase over eight years, and a contributor to that success may be the scholarship program. 


Over the years, UMMC has refined the program, identifying candidates as undergraduates. While the scholarship money isn't provided until the student enters medical school, identifying candidates from rural or under-served areas who want to "go home" to practice has greatly aided the success of the program. Scholarship recipients are required to practice rural medicine for four years. By identifying students who want to serve in their rural hometowns, the hope is that those future doctors will devote their entire careers to serving the folks in their community. That is the ultimate goal of the program. 


The scholarship program seems to be a logical method of reducing the doctor deficit in our state, especially in areas where there are critical needs. But the program is also a great benefit to opening opportunities for students who might never consider becoming a doctor. The idea of starting a career as a doctor without the enormous student debt that many young doctors face has obvious appeal. 


The money taxpayers provide for the scholarships -- medical groups are also contributing to the scholarship pool -- has produced a great return on our investment. 


It's a model that serves an important need by marrying private and public money. 


As we know, there has been a lot of talk about the "brain drain" Mississippi faces, where many of our best and brightest college graduates in a broad range of fields, flee the state for better opportunities elsewhere. 


While the circumstances of the rural physicians program are unique in some respects, we wonder if there are other opportunities where the state could incentivize graduates to stay home. There have been a few proposals along those lines, but the inducements to stay are relatively minor.  


One area where the rural physicians model may be effective is teaching. 


While there is a program that provides scholarships for teachers who commit to staying in Mississippi to teach, it is very, very small -- certainly not enough to move the needle. 


Perhaps a model similar to the Rural Physicians Scholarship Program could help us retain our best and brightest homegrown teachers.



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