Scholarship could help Black Belt

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, October 5, 2004

TUSCALOOSA – A team effort between The Alabama Farmers Federation, Alfa and the University of Alabama could have a beneficial effect on the Black Belt region through the Rural Medical Scholars Program.

UA announced last week a $1.8 million gift from The Alabama Farmers Federation and Alfa will be used to create an endowed scholarship fund for rural students enrolled in the Rural Medical Scholars Program, a cooperative effort between The University of Alabama and the University of Alabama School of Medicine.

“Over the last 32 years, the College of Community Health Sciences has been instrumental in identifying barriers to health care in rural Alabama and finding innovative ways to overcome them,” said Dr. E. Eugene Marsh, interim dean. “An excellent example is our Rural Medical Scholars Program, founded and directed by Dr. John Wheat. The RMSP is becoming increasingly recognized nationally as a model program to address a major barrier to rural health care, recruitment of physicians.

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Mike Marshall, adminstrator at Bryan-Whitfield Memorial Hospital in Demopolis agreed that recruitment of rural doctors is a problem because of several issues.

“Obviously the key component in recruiting rural physicians is they come from rural areas,” he said. “There is a different mindset for rural physicians that can really only be understood by someone who comes from a rural area.”

Marshall said the problem lies in getting rural students to medical school and then getting those rural students to return to the rural areas to practice medicine.

“Rural students don’t have the financial resources students from other areas have,” he said. “A lot of times they make it to undergraduate, but they have to work their way through school, so they’re trying to hold down a job and study whereas the rich kids can devote their time to studying or whatever it is they do,” he said. “It puts our kids at a disadvantage.”

Bryan Whitfield has a scholarship program aimed at helping those undergraduate students, but, Marshall said, that is only the beginning. After undergraduate, the students who make it have medical school and residency to deal with before being released to practice on their own.

“That’s where this scholarship helps,” Marshall said.

“The scholarships provided by Alfa will enhance this program by providing much-needed scholarship support for students who have committed to participate in this program,” Marsh said. “This partnership exemplifies the kind of joint efforts that are critical as we strive to provide accessible quality health care to all Alabamians.”

After their time in Tuscaloosa, Rural Medical Scholars matriculate to medical school at UAB, returning to the Tuscaloosa campus in the last two years of medical school for clinical training that includes a focus on rural primary care. When fully endowed, scholarships will provide support for the pre-matriculation year at UA and four years of medical school for Rural Medical Scholars.

The other issue facing rural areas’ medical needs is recruiting those graduates to rural areas.

“If you look at the program’s graduation rate, five of eight graduates returned to rural areas to practice medicine,” Marshall said. “The other three are in large cities.”

He said the problem lies in lower pay and higher work loads.

“The biggest problem is you’re not going to get paid as well as in larger cities, and the volume of patients is higher,” he said. “And then there’s the payer situation. The insurance coverage is better in larger cities.”

The goal of the Rural Medical Scholars Program is to produce physicians for rural Alabama who are leaders in community health. The Rural Medical Scholars Program is a special medical education track for rural students who plan to become rural primary care physicians, which begins with a year of special study of rural health issues and community medicine in the College of Community Health Sciences, which is both a college of The University of Alabama and a branch campus of the UASOM headquartered in Birmingham.

Marshall said that aspect of the training is important, because rural doctors have to have a different outlook and dedication than big-city doctors.

“Doctors who work in the rural setting have to have a different mindset. They really have to have a service mindset, they really have to have a commitment to service to the community.”

Alfa has been and continues to be a big supporter of that mindset.

“Almost 60 years ago, the Alabama Farmers Federation founded ALFA Insurance to help better serve rural communities,” said Jerry Newby, Alfa president. “By helping educate rural physicians, our company is continuing its legacy of service to farmers and rural Alabamians. The bright young men and women who participate in the Rural Medical Scholars Program will help improve the health of rural people, and by establishing practices in small towns, they will contribute to the economic health of the entire state.”

“We are very pleased to be partners with the Alabama Farmers Federation in the effort to improve the quality of life for farm families and rural Alabama,” said Dr. John Wheat, Rural Medical Scholars Program founder. “Future rural physicians, such as Terry James of Winston County, are one component in the overall plan needed to make rural and farm life safe, secure and rewarding to current and future farm families.”

Locally, Bryan Jones is on scholarship from Bryan Whitfield. He is attending medical school at Vanderbilt University, and as a requirement of the scholarship, he will return to Marengo County to practice medicine.

The emphasis at the College of Community Health Sciences is primary care and preparing physicians for rural medical practice. The College provides clinical education for third- and fourth-year medical students and offers specialty training to medical school graduates through its three-year Family Practice Residency Program. The College’s faculty and resident physicians provide medical service to the community at University Medical Center, a multi-specialty clinic located on University Boulevard at Fifth Avenue East.