Universities Work to Cure Arkansas' Physician Shortage

Aug 19, 2016

120 students in white doctor coats stood proudly on the Riceland Hall stage in the Fowler Center, reciting the “student pledge of commitment” with the goal of accomplishing a dream.  A dream to practice medicine.

The students are the culmination of a dream for a medical school to be in Northeast Arkansas at Arkansas State University in Jonesboro.  They are the inaugural class of the New York Institute of Technology College of Osteopathic Medicine at A-State—the first Osteopathic Medical school in the state.

Dr. Jason Penry is the Vice Chancellor for University Advancement at A-State.  Penry was involved in bringing the medical school to the university.  He said the partnership between A-State and NYIT will help address a serious physician shortage in the state.

Penry said Arkansas was ranked as one of the worst states with a low physician per capita ratio.

Dr. Barbra Ross-Lee, Dean of the NYIT-COM at ASU, agreed with Penry.  She said that as physicians retire, the state-wide physician shortage was getting worse. 

Ross-Lee said the physician shortage has made healthcare in Arkansas among the worst in the nation.  She said the creation of a new medical school will help fulfill a dire need in the state.  She believes that the community-center focus of Osteopathic medicine is what the state needs.

“What we do know is that physicians tend to stay and practice in areas where they're educated and where they've received residency training," Ross-Lee said.  "Therefore, if you're going to address this significant health issue, one of the ways to do that is to open a medical school.  Osteopathic medicine had a process in which that can be facilitated, and osteopathic medicine has a history of providing the kinds of physicians that are so very short and in need in the state and in the region.”

Creating more doctors who practice medicine in the state will help to solve the healthcare issue.  However, some are concerned that creating more doctors to solve that problem might actually create another problem:

"Unless there's an increase in the number of residency positions, there's going to be that 'bottleneck' in getting people actually out into practice, no matter how many medical students we graduate," said Dr. Richard Wheeler.

Wheeler is the Executive Associate Dean of Academic Affairs for the College of Medicine at the University of Arkansas School of Medical Science.  The “bottleneck” he’s referring to is the “Balanced Budget Act of 1997.”  One of the things the federal law did was to cut $112 billion in Medicare spending. 

Unfortunately, residency training programs are funded through Medicare.  With a cut in funding, caps were placed on how many residency programs could be established.  In order for a medical student to be certified, they must complete a couple of years of residency. 

In 1999, Congress passed the “Balanced Budget Refinement Act” to increase the cap for rural residency programs.  However, a cap still exists which could still affect the number of doctors at UAMS and A-State to be able to complete their studies and practice.

 Dr. Dan Rahn is the Chancellor at UAMS.  He said the Association of American Medical Colleges has predicted a physician shortage across the nation for some time now.  He said UAMS has done some things to combat the physician shortage and the residency cap.

"The AAMC has called upon the nation's medical schools to expand their enrollment, and we've done that," Rahn said.  "They've also called for a companion expansion of residency slots and that has not occurred nationally, and we're looking at a 'mismatch'."

Despite all of this, Ross-Lee is optimistic that students will be able to find residency programs and fix the physician shortage in Arkansas.  She said the college has already established affiliations with 24 community based hospitals around the state and region.

“5 of the hospitals have already started residency training programs based upon the fact the school is here," said Ross-Lee,  "and they will have candidates for these positions.”

She said over 200 slots have already been created and she hopes to add more.

"Ultimately, we hope to establish over 400 [residency slots],"  said Ross-Lee.  "It is a process, but at least we're halfway there; more than half-way there, quite frankly."

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