RURAL MEDICINE: Pathway For Medical Students

There is a critical shortage of family doctors in rural Iowa. For some, that means an hour long drive for appointments.

In the past, attracting doctors to small town Iowa hasn’t been easy.

Growing up in California, Libby Abbas always dreamed big.

“Every year, I wanted to be something else whether it was a marine biologist or President of the United States,” says Abbas.

It wasn’t until her family returned to their Iowa roots that the farm-girl transplant settled on a career.

“I had to drive an hour to get to the doctor so we didn’t go to the doctor until we were really, really sick.  I knew that rural primary care was something that I wanted to go into,” says the 4th year medical student at Des Moines University.

Iowa needs more rural doctors like Libby.

“Most patients want health care at home.  Very close to where they are and when you can’t find it, that’s defined as a critical shortage,” says Dr. David Plundo at DMU’s College of Osteopathic Medicine.

In Iowa, about a third of the state has a shortage.  The Health Resources and Services Administration says that means Iowans’ primary health care needs are not being met due to a long wait or drive for services.  It would take more 74 doctors to meet the needs of Iowans.

“One of the reasons that students don’t necessarily go into rural practices are the debt load that they incur,” says Plundo.

A program at DMU is easing the expense.  The Rural Medicine Educational Pathway Program offers tuition forgiveness to eligible medical students.  In return, they must work at least four years in rural communities across the state.

“In a year and a half, we’ll have six residents who will become full-fledged physicians who are in the process of signing contracts in rural Iowa as we speak,” says Plundo.

While some of her classmates will graduate up to $200,000 in debt, Abbas isn’t concerned about paying off student loans.

“Being a first generation college student and a farmer’s daughter, medical school is really expensive  so it’s been a huge blessing to me not to worry about the financial aspect of it,” she says.

Abbas hasn’t decided where to set up  her future practice.  She says she’s happy to go to any small town community and do the “rural thing”.

“When you can bring these young physicians into establish a practice to establish their roots and their family, it’s just a great thing,” says Plundo.

The state is starting a program of its own.  This year, $1.7 million will go to the Rural Iowa Primary Care Loan Repayment Program.  The state will select the first physicians for the new program later this spring.  The first payments going out after doctors complete their first year of practice in small town Iowa.

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