Ernest estimated the commission has helped send around 25 to 30 new doctors to rural areas each year.
One problem is that although medical-school class sizes at state universities have increased, residency programs have not kept pace. That means graduates must go out of state for residency requirements, Ernest said.
In 2012, a bill was passed by the Legislature that established a fund to create residency programs in rural areas, said William Pettit, associate dean for rural health at Oklahoma State University’s Center for Health Sciences. The program has residencies in Enid, Tahlequah, McAlester, Lawton, Durant and Talihina.
OSU also has begun to offer a medical track that focuses on providing health care in rural areas. Students from rural areas are recruited to join.
“We think this is the way to go — start encouraging young men and women in high school (to believe) that a rural practice back in their hometown or a neighboring community is not only possible but can be rewarding from a professional point of view and financially,” Pettit said.
Work to be done: Cindy Duncan, interim CEO for Memorial Hospital and Physician Group in Frederick, said that the hospital has interviewed six doctors for a position since January.
All declined offers, either because they or their families did not want to live in a rural community or because of the range of duties required.
The hospital has not had a full staff of physicians since 2004, Duncan said.
“We’re optimistic and want to say, ‘Yes, things will get better,’ but based on historical experience, I would say no,” Duncan said. “You want to be positive, but going on 11 years, it’s kind of hard to be positive about it.”
Physician shortages are a national problem as well.
Small communities can expect to see more doctors retire, a reflection of the aging workforce and the fact that doctors in rural areas tend to be older, Pettit said.