Thinking outside the box

Published 12:00 am Thursday, July 29, 2004

Commentary by Sen. Hank Sanders

“Think out of the box!” is a term we often hear these days. It’s a challenge to be creative in seeking solutions. I subscribe to this philosophy. I appreciate those who think outside the box.

A couple of weeks ago, I met with someone helping implement an out-of-the-box thought from 1999. “This was Jim Coleman’s idea,” said one of the two men sitting before me. “It is his baby.”

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The idea was a medical school without walls. The purpose was to meet the great and growing need for doctors in rural areas. Someone had to think out-of-the-box. Jim Coleman stepped up and lifted a good one right out the box.

At the time, Jim Coleman was directing the West Alabama Health Service. He knew first hand the need for doctors in rural Alabama. He also knew that those doctors would not be coming unless something extraordinary was done. He thought out-of-the-box. He conceived a medical school without walls, which is certainly out-of-the-box thinking.

The two persons sitting across my desk were Dr. Will Baker and Dr. Max McLaughlin. Dr. McLaughlin is commonly known as “Dr. Max.” They are helping forge into reality an idea conceived five years earlier. They are determined. The concept is on the verge of fruition.

Jim Coleman is no longer with West Alabama Health Service. In fact, the Health Service is no longer in existence. It died a sudden death when different leadership seized its reins. However, the concept of a medical school without walls not only lives on but is fast becoming a reality. “Sixty two of Alabama’s 67 counties do not have enough doctors,” Dr. Baker said, “And the situation is getting worse. This school will place more doctors in our rural areas.”

Dr. Baker and Dr. Max are providing slots for students to attend osteopathic medical schools in Kansas and other places. The first class will be selected this year. “We have 30 slots for Alabama students each year in Kansas City. We also have another six slots in Florida. We have the possibility of another 10 slots in a third osteophic medical school. When the program is in full swing, that will be 46 or so new students each year and a total 184 students in different phases of medical school. Think what it would mean to have 40 or more doctors a year serving the rural area of Alabama.” His eyes, already aglow, grew brighter. His face was alive with hope. “We have a partnership with seven public universities in Alabama. Some private colleges and universities, perhaps as many as ten, have or will join the partnership,” he said. In my mind, I could see all these different entities working together to build a medical school without walls.

“What are osteopathic doctors?” I asked. Dr. Max explained. “They are medical doctors whose treatment emphasizes manipulative techniques of the body to correct problems that cause disease and/or slows recovery. They are real medical doctors, just as qualified as any other medical doctors. They are licensed to practice in all medical disciplines.”

“Why would osteopathic doctors remain in rural areas rather than make the same beeline for the cities as other doctors?” I asked. “I wish I could give you an easy answer,” said Dr. Baker, “it just happens.” He went on to explain that it has something to do with the way osteopathic doctors are trained. “But,” he said, “records clearly demonstrate that osteopathic trained doctors are more likely to stay in rural areas.”

A major part of these osteopathic doctors’ training will take place in the rural communities where they will eventually live and work. That’s why it’s called a medical school without walls. After their first year of medical school in Kansas, Florida and other places, they will receive their training in the communities they are destined to serve. They will also be able to attend medical school without incurring the huge debts that force so many doctors to follow the big money.

Another unique features of the program, called the Black Belt Health Scholars Consortium, is that it begin achieved with current resources. As a result, it can sustain itself for the long haul. All of this almost unbelievable but makes sense when Dr. Baker and Dr. Max explain it.

Dr. Baker and Dr. Max had come to seek my help. Because I know firsthand the need for doctors in rural areas, I would have helped anyway. With the focus on the Alabama Black Belt, I had to be a part of making this thought a full-blown experience. I committed my full support as I silently thanked Jim Coleman for thinking out-of-the- box.

Now on to the Daily Diary.

Saturday -I went to the 21st Century Youth Leadership Center where I talked with several leaders. I then carried J. E. Franklin, the author of Black Girl and other well-known books to the Montgomery Airport. I returned to Selma to work late into the afternoon. I then traveled to Birmingham to pick up Faya Rose and continued to Atlanta for the Black Arts Festival.

Sunday -I was still in Atlanta.

I called to Selma for Radio Sunday School.

I talked with leaders from Delaware and New York. I returned to Selma that night.

Monday -I worked on Sketches before traveling to Trenholm Community College where I made remarks and did a book signing. I talked to the following: Dr. Anthony Molina’ President of Trenholm; Montgomery’s Senator Quinton Ross; longtime leader community Dr. Gwen Patton; Montgomery OIC leader, Connie Harper; and others. After lunch, I listened to a presentation concerning Trenholm. I returned to Selma where I spoke to youth involved in the Michael A. Figures Leadership Experience. I had dinner with Senator Vivian Figures and others before returning to work into the night.

Tuesday -I completed Sketches and shared lunch with J. L. Chestnut, Jr. and a friend who desires to remain anonymous. I met with Dr. Mac Portera, Chancellor of the University of Alabama System, about higher education issues. I then traveled to Mobile for a book signing and discussions with several South Alabama leaders. I returned to Selma.

Wednesday -I talked with the following: Selma Mayor James Perkins, Jr.; Dr. Paul Hubbert of AEA (Alabama Education Association); Civil Rights leader Dr. C. T. Vivian; Blondie Njotinio of South Africa; and Jackie Thomas, Administrator of the Lowndes County Commission. I participated in a gathering where I made remarks. I then worked on Black Belt Foundation issues.

Thursday -I was in Montgomery for a series of activities including the following: a Senate Democratic Caucus meeting; a Senate Black Caucus meeting; and a meeting with Joyce Bigbee, Director of Legislative Fiscal Office; and a meeting with Senate President Pro Tem Lowell Barron and Senator E. B. McClain. I also appeared on the Public TV program, For The Record. After the TV program, I talked with Senator Myron Penn, Sharon Wheeler, Pat Harris and others during a dinner. I returned to Selma.

Friday -I had an 8:00 a.m. meeting. I worked on Sketches. I had a “pick me up” lunch with Gloria Pompey and Rita Lett. I talked with Dr. Paul Hubbert. I attended a celebration for Ora Lee Gaines where I presented a Senate Resolution. I talked with various leaders including the Mayor of Selma.

EPILOGUE -Most of us do what we have always done. Most of us get results we have always gotten. Its good to see people thinking out-of-the-box. It’s even better to see people acting on the out-of-the thoughts.