MU medical school expands program to address rural health disparities

Tuesday, January 7, 2014 | 6:00 a.m. CST; updated 4:40 p.m. CST, Tuesday, January 7, 2014

COLUMBIA — MU's School of Medicine wants to train more doctors to provide health care in rural Missouri.

The university has expanded its Bryant Scholars Pre-Admissions Program to seven additional colleges in the state. The program encourages future physicians to practice in underserved rural areas by allowing undergraduates interested in rural medicine to earn pre-admission to the medical school.


RURAL HEALTH CARE: Stories of residents of rural areas illustrate the broader challenges in meeting President Barack Obama's goal of reducing the number of uninsured in places with some of the highest percentages of uninsured residents. (This story is available to Missourian digital members.)

The schools added are:

  • Missouri Western State University, St. Joseph

  • William Jewell College, Liberty

  •  Missouri Southern State University, Joplin

  •  Westminster  College, Fulton

  •  Northwest Missouri State University, Maryville

  •  University of Missouri — St. Louis

  •  University of Missouri — Kansas City

The addition of these schools brings the total number of eligible undergraduate colleges to 13.

Statewide, most rural counties — which are home to 37 percent of the state’s population — have health care worker shortages. Of 101 rural counties in the state, 98 are "health professional shortage areas," according to a 2013 report by the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services.

A health professional shortage area is defined by the U.S. government as an area where there are more than 3,500 patients per physician, according to the U.S. Health Resources and Services Administration website.

Many rural areas in the state also lack hospitals. Of 166 licensed hospitals in the state, only 76 are in rural counties, and 41 of those have fewer than 25 beds and offer limited services, according to the report.

Lower survival rates in car crashes has been cited as one of the problems with the lack of emergency health care infrastructure in rural areas. The rate of deaths attributed to crashes in these areas is more than double that of urban areas, according to the report.

Statewide, death rates from all causes are almost 10 percent higher in rural than urban areas, according to the report. Rural areas have greater death rates in all of the top 10 categories of cause of death statewide, according to the report.

"You'll find rural Missourians to be older and sicker," said Brian Smith of the Rural Missouri Crisis Center in Columbia, an organization that advocates for issues of importance to farmers and rural residents.

Many rural Missouri residents unable to visit a doctor for minor health issues due to a lack of insurance or difficulty in traveling to a doctor eventually wind up in emergency rooms with more severe problems, Smith said.

"The biggest factor is a matter of access," Smith said.

“Thirty-seven percent of the population lives in rural areas,” Kathleen Quinn of MU’s medical school said, “but only 18 percent of primary care physicians practice in a rural area.”

The Bryant Scholars program is intended to improve rural health care access by attracting rural students to the medical field by offering students from rural areas an opportunity to earn pre-admission to a highly selective medical school while they are still undergraduates, Quinn said.

“We want students from rural areas,” Quinn said. “Years of research shows that if a student is from a rural area, they will most likely go back there to practice.”

Eighty percent of Bryant Scholars stay in Missouri, and 55 percent of graduates work in rural areas, Quinn said.

While the program does not offer scholarships or grants, Quinn said there are federal programs such as the National Health Service Corps, which pays for a medical school graduate's student loans if the graduate works as a primary care physician in a health professional shortage area.

Supervising editor is Katherine Reed

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