Mission, Angel Medical aim to attract more doctors to rural areas

Macon County residents will see fresh faces at local clinics as a rural health initiative brings students and young doctors into rural communities.
   Mountain Area Health Education Center (MAHEC) received $8 million in the most recent state budget to create new residency programs in general surgery and psychiatry, and to expand its existing family medicine and OBGYN programs and Mission Health clinics, including those in Franklin.
   “What is already underway and will be expanding over the next few months and years is the frequency with which medical students and residents spend time in Franklin and get that sort of rural experience as part their education,” said Ronald Paulus, president and CEO of Mission Health and MAHEC board chairman. “Residents [physicians] will be actively rotating through our rural hospitals. There will be a significantly enhanced presence of residents at Angel Medical Center.”
   Medical residency is part of the long process of becoming a physician, according to the American Medical Association. After earning an MD, a new doctor must spend three to seven years or more training under the supervision of a senior physician in a clinical setting. 
   They often rotate through different departments of a hospital or in multiple clinics in an area. Third- and fourth-year medical students similarly rotate through clinical settings.
   Paulus said people visiting Mission Health clinics in Franklin likely will see more doctors in residency and medical students as the programs ramp up.
   “They may see the residents in conjunction with their physicians together,” he said. “Generally they will see those physicians in training in the hospital, in the doctors’ practices …  and they will be from time to time interacting with them.”
   MAHEC, which serves the 16 westernmost North Carolina counties, is expanding the residency programs into outlying areas to help solve a serious shortage of rural doctors, said MAHEC President and CEO Jeffery Heck.
   Macon County has a deficit of 4.4 primary care doctors, according to state data. Currently, there is one primary care doctor for every 1,462 people, a deficit higher than the stage average.
The entire 16-county MAHEC service area needs about 140 primary care doctors and about 20 general surgeons, Heck said. A statewide shortage of behavioral health specialists is exaggerated in rural areas.
   “Most residency programs are located in major teaching hospitals like Chapel Hill, Duke, Wake Baptist, University of Tennessee in Knoxville, Emory,” Heck said. “But that doesn’t help the rural areas. Rural areas across the country, and Franklin is no exception. There aren’t enough well-qualified physicians.”
   About half of residents end up practicing close to where they trained, Paulus said. And about 65 percent of the doctors who practice in North Carolina’s 16 westernmost counties went through a MAHEC program. 
   Paulus and Heck hope that residents and third- and fourth-year medical students who rotate into rural mountain communities will fall in love with the areas and want to stay.
   “Our desire is that there will be really high-quality students and residents in Franklin being exposed to what it’s like,” Heck said. “We want them to choose communities in Western North Carolina.”
   “No one in the world would deny that there’s a massive problem with recruiting and retaining physicians in rural areas,” Paulus said. “The most important thing is we’re actually doing something about it.”
For more information, visit www.mahec.net.

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