Saturday, May 28, 2011

Rural medical training programs have success, but live 'on the edge' of personnel and funding

With the Obama administration offering more funding to improve rural health care, Rural Training Track programs to steer medical students to rural areas are hoping to expand, a move that would benefit underserved areas.

"Over 62 million Americans live in rural America and there is a significant crisis in terms of having access to care for these people," said Amy Elizondo, vice president of program services at the National Rural Health Association. "There is a very uneven distribution of health care professionals and an acute shortage of primary care physicians in rural areas. If we can recruit and retain physicians to serve rural areas, we improve access for rural America." (University of Washington map; click for larger version)
RTT programs aim to educate family physician residents in rural environments with the hope they will continue to practice there, Candi Helseth reports in a deailed article for the Rural Assistance Center. "These residency programs are a proven model for addressing rural family physician workforce shortages, with more than 70 percent of graduates praticing in rural areas," Helseth reports. The first such program started in Colville, Wash., in 1985. There are 25 RTTs in 17 states.

In Caldwell, Idaho, 95 percent of graduates have chosen to practice in rural areas over the past 16 years. "We heavily recruit residents who are rural-oriented," Dr. Samantha Portenier, a practicing physician and director of the Caldwell RTT, told Helseth. "We've had some who were not and we converted them. Part of it was that they really saw where the training we give them and the skills they learn are so needed in rural areas. I emphasize that in rural areas you can specialize in areas that particularly interest you."

Despite the success, 10 RTT programs have closed in the past 10 years. "Every RTT lives on the edge in terms of funding," Dr. Randall Longenecker, who is project director of Rural Training Track Assistance Demonstration Project, told Helseth. "In general RTTs are small, have limited faculty and are vulnerable to personnel changes, a bad year for recruiting, loss of funding and many other factors beyond their control."

Now, RTTs are under a federal microscope. The health care reform law created the Rural Training Track Assistance Demonstration Project, a three-year pilot program that plans to "collect comprehensive information to better understand the collective forces challenging RTT models and develop solutions that will strengthen existing RTTs and encourage development of new RTTs," Helseth reports.

The time is ripe, given that more medical students are choosing to be family medicine physicians, up by 11 percent last year and 8 percent the year before. "We have a real opportunity here to redefine the importance of primary care being foundational in rural workforces," Dr. Ted Epperly, past president and past board chairman of the American Academy of Family Physicians, told Helseth. "Right now, only 9 percent of physicians are choosing to practice in rural areas while 20 percent of the population lives there. RTTs offer a way to give family physicians a broad scope of practice, which they need practicing in a rural area, and to get them to stay in those rural areas." (Read more)

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