Program aims to overcome shortage of doctors in rural areas

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COLUMBIA - Many people take quality medical care for granted. For those in rural areas, the lack of doctors can pose serious problems when seeking care.

In Missouri, 97% of the 101 rural counties are designated as Primary Medical Care Health Professional Shortage areas by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

While nearly 25% of the U.S. population resides in rural areas, the total percentage of physicians in these areas is only 10%.

"Rural physician shortage is a significant problem because people in these rural counties cannot easily access health care," said MU School of Medicine Associate Dean for Rural Health Kathleen Quinn. "People in these rural communities usually put off going to the doctor because it's far away, they have to take off work, childcare issues etc."

At the MU School of Medicine, a program in place since 1995 is helping combat the problem.

MU med student Meredith Norfleet said she understands the benefits of becoming a rural physician.

"I think one thing that I've learned from participating in this program, is that it's a definite need by all the members of our small communities here in Missouri," Norfleet said."I think that's something that's going to drive my decisions moving forward when I figure out what I want to do and where I want to practice, knowing that all the members of rural communities here are needing better health care options."

Quinn said about 20 percent of MU Med School students take advantage of the Rural Track Program in some fashion.

But, she said, it can sometimes be hard to find rural students who want a career in health care.

"A lot of students in these smaller towns aren't exposed to health professionals, so they don't have those role models," Quinn said. "So one of things that we're working on is exposing youth to health careers, preparing them for health careers and ensuring that they can succeed and can get through the rigor of medical school to therefore practice in these communities.

For Norfleet, the decision to become a rural physician was never in question.

"It was driven by my background, I'm from a very small town of only about 220 people, so it's always been an interest of mine to go back to a smaller community and serve the people I grew up with," Norfleet said. "I think I'm excited about the relationships that I'm hoping to form with my patients. I feel like in a rural setting you get to be a lot closer to your patients, know a little bit more about their background more so than their health."