Residency creation aids in bridging the great health divide in Arkansas

Published: Nov. 21, 2021 at 5:50 PM CST
Email This Link
Share on Pinterest
Share on LinkedIn

JONESBORO, Ark. (KAIT) - Medical schools in Arkansas are one step closer to bridging the great health divide in the state, finding a way to bring in more doctors.

A lack of doctors in the state, especially in rural areas, means thousands of Arkansans do not have proper access to healthcare.

That lack is most notable in the number of primary care physicians available in smaller communities like Cross County.

As of 2017, there were just 10 primary care physicians in Cross County. In 2019, the population rate for the county was over 16,000.

Family doctors like Dr. James Cathey say that need has been in these communities for a while.

“I think it’s a big deal and it has been for many years now and I think it’s still a huge issue,” said Cathey.

Medical schools like the New York Institute of Technology College of Osteopathic Medicine at A-State are hoping to help fill that need through residency creation.

Associate Dean of Academics at NYIT Dr. Amanda Deel said one of the school’s main goals is to help open more opportunities for residents to train and then hopefully stay, in Arkansas.

“If we can have residency programs, specifically residency programs that expose residents to rural areas or have part of their residency or all of their residency within a rural area. Now we’ve given that resident, that physician, the ability to practice in that area. To get to know the people and hopefully then consider staying on and serving as a physician in that community,” said Deel.

Deel said doctors are 57% more likely to stay in the state they complete their residency.

“If a student comes to medical school in Arkansas and then stays for residency training in the state of Arkansas, they have built a community of support around them,” said Deel.

Medical school graduates must complete three to seven years of residency in order to be board-certified and allowed to practice medicine.

In that time, residents like Dr. Timothy Baty learn everything from bedside manner, to how to properly diagnose and treat a patient.

“You spend four years in medical school and you’re learning about everything that you’ve got to do to treat people, but when you get to residency you are the doctor. You are treating people you know, it’s a steep learning curve,” said Baty.

The problem in Arkansas is the small number of residency programs available.

There are currently 89 residency programs in Arkansas, 18 of those created in the last six years.

Those new programs offer 144 new annual positions statewide.

“In 2020, we graduated our first class and last year we had another graduating class. Between those two classes, we had about 26, 27 graduates that entered into residency programs that did not exist when they began medical school,” said Deel.

Baty, a Wynne native, is one of those graduates. He’s currently in his second year of residency at UAMS North Central in Batesville, a program created just three years ago.

“I was hoping, and I wanted to stay in Arkansas because Arkansas is home,” said Baty. “I went all over. I went to North Carolina, I went to Missouri, I went to Alaska, I went to Colorado. I interviewed multiple places.”

Dr. Jordan Weaver is the residency program director at UAMS North Central. His program accepts six new family medicine residents every year.

“We were the first expansion of regional programs at UAMS in 25 years,” said Weaver.

In 2017, there were 52 active primary care physicians in Independence County.

With the residency program, that number grows every year.

“The benefit to the community is huge in bringing- you know, you have 18 doctors in this community in addition to what we had before,” said Weaver.

NYIT has been working to help expand the number of residency programs, especially in rural areas, since opening in 2015.

That year, the school received a $250,000 grant from Arkansas Blue Cross and Blue Shield, which was used to help start new residencies.

“Medical students come to medical school and they want to change the world,” said Deel. “I think that really helps them open their eyes to these communities that, ‘hey I wanted to change the world,’ well I don’t have to go around the world to change the world, I can change the world ten miles down the road.”

These new programs also give opportunities to Arkansans, like Baty, who want to stay in the state.

“My entire education has been in Arkansas, and I’ve been here my entire life. Why would I want to leave?” said Baty.

Baty has plans to return home to work at Wynne Medical Clinic, alongside Cathey.

“It’s a huge impact that these students are making when they come back. And they’re actually taking care of people who are family members or who they knew growing up,” said Cathey.

Finding ways to bring residents into rural communities will allow for more opportunities for those doctors to stay in those areas.

“If they have been exposed to and taken care of people in a rural area, and seen how rewarding that is, and how beneficial they can be in a community, then they’re much more likely to incorporate that into their future practice,” said Deel.

“That’s our focus, to train and retain physicians for our area and rural Arkansas as well, and I think that’s where we see a gap,” said Weaver.

There has been a 20% growth in the number of residency programs in Arkansas since 2015, and a number of those have been added into more rural areas.

“At the end of the day they need care, and it isn’t right for them to have to drive 60 miles or an hour just to see a family physician,” said Baty. “They should be able to see a family doc in their own town because a lot of them don’t have transportation. Or a lot of them, they’re working people, they can’t take time off from work to drive all the way to wherever, Jonesboro, Little Rock, Memphis.”

Creating these new residency programs is a group effort.

“I think that’s one of the biggest things you would need if you were going to start a program in another location is just community support and then the medical community support,” said Weaver.

“I think it is finding that partner that wants, really, really wants to help you and not necessarily run everything. But has the capability of picking up that ball if you want,” said Deel.

With the success of these new programs, NYIT has no plans to slow down.

“We’re constantly looking at, you know, how can we involve more and more rural areas in our training. Whether that’s on the undergraduate or the graduate medical education side,” said Deel.

Medical professionals are all hopeful we’re one step closer to giving all Arkansans the healthcare they deserve.

“Getting them here and taking care of these people, because they’re hard-working people,” said Baty. “They put the food on the table. And if we don’t take care of our workforce then at the end of the day, we won’t have anyone to take care of us.”

Deel, Weaver, Cathey, and Baty have all received most or all of their education in the state of Arkansas, proving how effective training doctors in our state can be at keeping them here.

For more on NYIT and residency creation, visit the NYIT website here.

Copyright 2021 KAIT. All rights reserved.