New Arkansas Medical School Aims To Place More Doctors in Rural Regions

Posted By Donna Fuscaldo on October 11, 2016 at 4:55 pm
New Arkansas Medical School Aims To Place More Doctors in Rural Regions

In the next decade, the nation will face a shortage of primary care doctors. That will impact patients around the country, and it will be worse in rural regions that already find it hard to attract family physicians. To lessen that impact, a second Arkansas medical school opened in the state this fall, welcoming 120 students.

It matters. Arkansas has the third fewest doctors per capita in the nation. Dr. Barbara Ross-Lee leads the new med school – the New York Institute of Technology College of Osteopathic Medicine at Arkansas State University (NYITCOM at A-State). The mission of the new Arkansas medical school is to bring future doctors to the state and, more importantly, keep them there.

“Arkansas has one of the greatest shortage of physicians of any state in the country,” says Ross-Lee, the first African-American woman to serve as dean of a U.S. medical school. “There’s only one medical school, and it can’t do the job of producing the kinds of physicians needed to deliver health care.”

Arkansas medical school to help with expected doctor shortage

According to the Association of Medical Colleges, there will be a shortfall of between 14,900 and 35,600 primary care physicians by 2025; the shortfall of non-primary care specialties is projected between 37,400 and 60,300. The association also finds the numbers of new primary care physicians and other medical specialists are not keeping pace with the health care demands of a growing and aging population.

Opening up a new medical school is costly for states such as Arkansas, so it created a public-private partnership to develop a medical school that has experience producing the family physicians that are in short supply. Ross-Lee was tapped to run the medical school on Arkansas State University’s campus largely because of her success with NYIT’s College of Osteopathic Medicine.

Luring and keeping talented physicians has long been an uphill battle. Ross-Lee says one of the big goals is to admit as many students as possible who live in Arkansas. The school is also attempting to create a pipeline of future Arkansas doctors by working with students at the K-12 level. “Studies say physicians tend to practice where they are trained and where they come from,” Ross-Lee says. “If we can identify potential physicians from the students of Arkansas and we can educate them in Arkansas, they will tend to stay in Arkansas.”

Mini medical schools in K-12 create pipeline of doctors

To meet that end, Ross-Lee says Arkansas State University’s NYITCOM is setting up miniature medical schools at high schools and colleges around the state. The program introduces students to the medical field and prepares them for their future education. To get into medical school, students will need a high grade point average and a science background. The mini med school program will lay the groundwork, and it also creates a pathway for minority students who might not otherwise dream of going into the medical profession.

“We made a commitment to try and have class as diverse as possible, and our inaugural class has about 14 percent underrepresented minorities, which is well above national average of 6 to 8 percent,” Ross-Lee says. “They are qualified students. Some tend to think that somehow we are accepting students that are less qualified.”

African-American males the forgotten group in med school

For minorities, particularly African-American men, the idea of going to college — let alone medical school — isn’t always part of the conversation. For starters, medical schools in the U.S. don’t have many African-American male teachers and doctors for young people to look up to. What’s more, the cost of college and medical school can be prohibitive.

The Arkansas Department of Health can help with that and provide an incentive for guiding doctors to rural areas. It has a loan repayment program that assists licensed primary care medical, dental and mental health providers who provide services in underserved communities. Primary care physicians can receive $30,000 to $50,000 in loan repayments for committing to serve a community in short supply of doctors for two years. After the two years, doctors who stay on in the community can get even more help with their student loans.

There are other challenges for minority students besides cost. Take Joseph Johnson, an osteopathic medical student at the Lincoln DeBusk Memorial University College of Osteopathic Medicine, where he is the only African-American medical student. The school admits 240 students every year, and with only one African-American faculty member, Johnson is hard-pressed to find anyone similar to him to relate to.

“The No. 1 barrier is they don’t have role models,” Johnson says about the low number of African-American men studying medicine. “A lot of them are first generation to go to college, come from low-income backgrounds, and have no guidance.”

Difficulties and bad experiences, such as challenges with filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, can discourage minority students and cause them to be less likely to go to college, he says. “The only thing that was different for me was I had a family, which gave me a little extra push and drive,” says Johnson, who graduated high school, got married, and had a child. After working at a factory, he went back to college and focused on his studies.

Today, Johnson is in his fourth year of medical school and planning to practice rural family medicine. “The highest percentage that say they want to practice in a rural area has consistently proven to be minority males,” he says.

So how did the new Arkansas medical school fare with its inaugural class? Ross-Lee says 50 percent are residents of Arkansas, while 25 percent come from the delta of neighboring states. More than 90 percent of the class is from the South.

Ross-Lee says one reason recruitment goals were met by the Arkansas medical school is that five higher education institutions in the state joined a program in which students with the proper requirements can count their first year of medical school as their final year in college.

Students who complete the baccalaureate preparation portion of the life sciences degree in three years can be admitted directly into the D.O. program in the College of Osteopathic Medicine, assuming they meet the acceptance standards. The program lessens the cost of a four-year degree and accelerates the process to enter medical school — so students can enter the workforce and treat residents of rural Arkansas that much sooner.

Donna Fuscaldo
Donna Fuscaldo is a freelance journalist hailing out of Long Island, New York. She has also written for,,,, Business Insider, Dow Jones Newswires and the Wall Street Journal.

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