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Program Hopes to Increase Rural Physicians by Starting Young

A Southern university is working to grow the number of minority physicians practicing in rural areas, and it's doing that by targeting students as early as elementary school.

The University of Alabama Rural Minority Scholars Program is part of its Rural Health Leaders Pipeline initiative, which includes a number of efforts. The pipeline starts by introducing rural, minority students to health professions in elementary school and later encouraging high school students to explore medical careers. It eventually enables medical students to complete their residencies in rural areas.

The minority scholars program recruits students in high school and invites them to be part of a five-week summer program. It launched in 2001 when only 10 percent of the university's medical students were from rural areas; 63 percent of the state's counties are considered rural.

A new study published in the Journal of Research in Rural Education delved into the experiences of some former participants. The report highlights the fact that more than half of the country's regions with a doctor shortage are rural. And we've reported that rural children also are more likely to have health problems and chronic conditions such as obesity, asthma and diabetes.

During the program's first eight years, 88 students participated, and nine of those went on to medical or dental school. "Several" others pursued advanced degrees in health professions, and about half of those students still were working on undergraduate degrees at the time of the study, according to the study.

One of the findings was that the minority scholars program helped students understand what it takes to get to medical school. Daisha, a former student, talked in the study about how her high school curriculum prepared her for college. Students' last names were not used.

"I think one of the biggest barriers [for rural minority students] is academic preparation in high school, and that is no fault of their own.... The program opened my eyes a lot," she said. "I think coming from rural areas you have facilities sometimes and exposures that are limited. The first time I used a Bunsen burner was in [this program]. I talked to other students who had similar experiences. Imagine going into a college lab and not knowing the basic things."

The study also noted that even though top minority high school students were recruited for the program, they still had to learn fundamental skills necessary for college success, such as doing more than memorizing to pass a test.

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