Rebranding Rural Medicine for Young Doctors

August 12, 2011
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Some people who know me personally, know that I just started medical school at Mercer University School of Medicine.

Some people who know me personally, know that I just started medical school at Mercer University School of Medicine. Mercer’s goal is to train doctors to work in rural and underserved areas of Georgia. As part of our orientation exercises a few days ago, we all took field trips out to many of Georgia’s rural and underserved areas. Honestly, living in a rural area isn’t what I thought it was going to be.

My group went to a town with a population size just shy of 10,000 people called Fitzgerald, GA. I guess for me, the reason I went was because I knew my dad worked there. Over the years, he had developed a knack for going to work in all these rural communities that are so far out of the way, that it’s sometimes caused his friends to question his sanity. After this experience, I think I’m starting to understand his passion for these places a little bit more.

When most people think of rural medicine, there’s this idea that you’ll likely have very few patients and keep herds of cows and flocks of chickens for company. While it is true that Fitzgerald is unabashedly proud of its wild (and legally protected) chicken population, the rest is largely a misconception. Even though towns like Fitzgerald have relatively small populations, young doctors actually build a large patient base fairly quickly. The fact is that patients in rural communities have very few options for doctors, hence, young physicians will often find they may be the only ones offering their specialties in certain areas and in some cases, their comparatively large patient base allows them to maximize their scope of practice.

The city and many other stakeholders have spent a pretty large sum to renovate and expand the scope of available services at Dorminy Medical Center which is the only hospital in Fitzgerald. Aside from the fact that they needed cost-effective ways to reduce the distance that residents of Ben Hill County travel for medical care, they’re using the hospital as a means of planning the future of the city. The recently retired mayor, Gerald Thompson said

The only way businesses are gonna come to our city is if they know that they will be taken care of when they get here. Without a proper hospital, we can’t bring developers, business, or arts organizations, so we really need you guys.

Maybe it’s because of my idealistic tendencies that this statement resonated with me. A lot of times, I think med schools tend to advertise the fact that med students can get their loans paid off faster by working in rural areas and they often fail to make the case for the social impact that the presence of the right doctors can make in the community. To some degree, many people who go into medicine go with a certain sense of purpose and not just for the money and the lifestyle that it can afford them. Getting young doctors to understand the indirect value of the service they provide to the community may very well be the most crucial step in raising the next generation of rural doctors.

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