MU rural health program aims to combat doctor shortage

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FULTON - Two grants awarded to the MU School of Medicine in August could help solve a shortage in the healthcare industry in Missouri.

The grants, which total to nearly $5 million, were awarded to the Rural Track Pipeline program to train new doctors to work in rural healthcare.

Dr. Laura Morris works at Callaway Physicians in Fulton. She practices family medicine and said growing up in a small community influenced her decision to go through the Rural Track program.

"I wanted to be a doctor because I like to be in charge and make decisions and always wanted to be able to come back and serve the community where I came from," Morris said.

She said her hands-on experience working in a rural community was the most valuable thing she got from all four years of medical school.

"I think I really understood what it was like to go out and practice in those areas as opposed to what you read about in books or what you see sort of standing at the back of the line as a medical student," she said.

Morris has also seen the deficiencies in the rural health field. High rates of turnover in rural clinics as well as the socioeconomic situation of rural communities mean that sometimes patients have trouble receiving the care they need.

A new report from the Missouri Department of Health says that only eight counties in the state have enough health care professionals. That means 107 counties are experiencing a shortage.

"That's part of my job is to try to be that arm that reaches out so that they can actually get access," Morris said. "The worst thing, and what we want to avoid are patients that actually have poor outcomes because they haven't had access to their primary care."

That's hopefully, according to Morris, where the Rural Track Pipeline Program comes in.

According to Dr. Kathleen Quinn, associate dean for Rural Health at the MU School of Medicine, the Rural Track program often recruits students from rural areas because previous statistics show those students are more likely to go back to rural areas to work.

Over the four years that they are in medical school, Quinn says students are immersed in hands on experience.

"They understand not only what it's like to practice in a rural community, but live in a rural community," she said. "Even the students that are from rural communities don't always have an understanding of the medical community and what their contribution can be to healthcare."

Dr. Morris said choosing rural health was "one of the most rewarding decisions [she] ever made."

To any students considering a career in rural healthcare, Morris said to consider the impact they'll have on the community.

"The degree of trust of patients in their family doctor is amazing," she said. "They allow me to be there at the beginning of life, at the end of life. Those relationships are unique."