The University of Alabama

Growing a New Crop of Doctors for Alabama

In a state with high rates of heart disease, cancer, diabetes and obesity, as well as injuries occurring in timber and agriculture industries, Alabama’s health care providers have their hands full at the best of times.

Now is not the best of times. The state needs at least 200 more primary care doctors to provide even the most basic (not optimal) care. With the aging of currently practicing rural physicians and the imminent healthcare reforms, the crisis will worsen nationally.

Dr. James Leeper

Taking a lead in addressing this physician education crisis are faculty in UA’s College of Community Health Sciences involved with the UA Rural Health Leaders Pipeline, which includes programs open exclusively to Alabama’s rural students. Programs in the pipeline are known nationally as a model for finding and cultivating rural students who can be the next generation of rural physicians and other health care providers.

Dr. John Brandon

Dr. John E. Brandon, a family physician in Gordo and clinical professor of community and rural medicine and family medicine; Dr. James D. Leeper, professor of community and rural medicine; and Dr. John R. Wheat, professor of community and rural medicine and internal medicine, helped to establish and now lead a national group of rural medical educators. This group, sponsored by the National Rural Health Association, has collaborated and consulted in evaluating rural medical education theory and practices being implemented successfully at UA through the pipeline.

Besides consulting, Brandon, Leeper and Wheat, along with Susan Guin, assistant professor of rural and community medicine and associate director of the pipeline programs, publish widely on facets of rural medical education. One such article co-authored by Wheat with Leeper and other members of the NRHA Rural Medical Education Group, “Undergraduate Rural Medical Education Program Development: Focus Group Consultation with the NRHA Rural Medical Educators Group,” appeared in The Journal of Rural Health. It highlights UA’s contribution to the national discussion and UA’s demonstration through the Rural Medical Scholars Program of rural medical education methods that are most effective in meeting the urgent state and national need for rural physicians.

“This program, with its strong mission to produce rural physicians who are community leaders, has helped to show the way for others in medical education, as well as all interested parties, across rural America, how they might ‘grow their own’ family doctors,” said Brandon.

Susan Guin

The success of the pipeline approach, particularly the Rural Medical Scholars Program (the culmination of the pipeline programs) was documented in “The Rural Medical Scholars Program Study: Data to Inform Rural Health Policy,” an article published in The Journal of the American Board of Family Medicine’s most recent issue [January 2011,Vol. 24, No. 1].

The pipeline is a sequence of programs whose goal is finding and nurturing capable rural students interested in becoming physicians and health professionals and practicing in their home towns or similar rural areas of the state.

Dr. John Wheat

“These students are more likely than non-rural students to return to their roots to practice medicine in rural underserved areas after completing their training in urban medical centers,” said Wheat. The pipeline includes programs for high school, minority, premed, graduate and medical students. It incorporates summer fieldwork and rural research options for students at all levels, an Interim course for Rural Health Scholars and other rural students during college, and rural rotations for medical students and physicians in the CCHS family practice residency program.

“We provide residential programs for high school students and do extensive outreach to elementary and middle school students in rural schools to introduce health careers. Many students in Alabama’s rural

Cynthia Moore

communities have not thought about entering medicine or health care professions because there are so few role models with whom they can identify locally,” says Cynthia Moore, co-founder and director of UA’s Rural Health Scholars and Rural Minority Health Scholars programs.

Go to cchs.ua.edu/rural_programs for more information on all these programs.