Workforce trends

As the need for rural doctors grows, an OU-HCOM professor has been at the forefront of recruiting efforts

Randy Longenecker, MD, of OU-HCOM has been collaborating with other medical educators for more than a decade, working to create more rural training programs.

Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, and the loss of industry experienced in rural communities, medical schools are hoping to fill the gap of rural doctors with new graduates, especially those who attended schools in rural areas. According to a recent report by WKSU news, with people leaving these communities, more rural areas are becoming medical deserts, and the need for more doctors continues to rise.

Currently, according to the National Rural Health Association, 20% of Americans live in rural areas, but only 9% of doctors practice there. Randy Longenecker, MD, a professor of family medicine and assistant dean of Rural and Underserved Programs at the Ohio University Heritage College of Osteopathic Medicine (OU-HCOM), has been collaborating with other medical educators for more than a decade, working to create more rural training programs. Although Longenecker recognizes the need to fill in these medical deserts, he believes it’s not a lack of doctors that’s the problem.

“Our nation has a long history of throwing more doctors at problems and haven’t necessarily solved them,” Dr. Longenecker told WKSU. “We have plenty of doctors, just too many in the wrong place and in the wrong specialty. If we could somehow persuade more folks to live and work in rural places, we’d be much better off as a nation.”

The solitary nature of rural medicine can be daunting

According to WKSU’s research, two things are needed to encourage doctors to practice in rural areas. Medical schools must one, recruit students from rural areas and two, train them there. The problem is, many students find rural medicine a daunting prospect because it often involves a lack of resources and can be a solitary effort.

To help students work through these reservations, the Rural Health Scholars Retreat, a collaboration between OU-HCOM and the Ohio State University Department of Community and Family Medicine, connects Ohio medical students to practicing rural physicians every year. There are now 42 rural training tracks in medical schools, up from 17 in 2006.

J. Alex Heintzelman, MD, who practices medicine in rural Columbiana County, Ohio, attended the retreat when he was a med student.

“And I got there and met these other people that had similar interests,” he told WKSU. “And it just felt, right. It was like, ‘Oh, these are my people.’”

3 comments

  1. I have been practicing rural medicine for 26 years. You are correct, there is a lack of resources. Starting a solo practice 50 miles from the nearest hospital and relying on a poorly staffed and equipped volunteer ambulance corp. can be a very lonely prospect. Having your employer treat you, and judge you, by the same standards as a busy and thriving metropolitan hospital practice can be a very frustrating situation. You never seem to attain their production goals. Financially and practically, a metropolitan practice is a much more attractive prospect for a new graduate. Fortunately, for me, the advantages of a rural practice far outweigh the disadvantages. This is where you can really make a difference in the health of a community.

  2. Look into the work of John Bowling, D. O. John is retired from TCOM. He developed seminal work in the establishment of “rural tracks” and rural medical education some 15 years ago, or so. He is truly a pioneer in rural medical education.

  3. I am a 1980 graduate of KCOM. At that time, KCOM had a grant from HEW (Health, Education and Welfare) now HHS for a rural clinic program. A physician shortage area would apply to the school, provide a clinic and support staff and a senior student would be assigned as the town physician. In the morning we had lectures on running a practice and afternoon went off to our clinics. I was in Bucklin, Mo. population 654. I made house calls, did procedures, had regular office hours
    under the supervision of a faculty member and direct support from Kirksville Osteopathic Hospital. To this day, I consider this one of the most important experiences I had in medical school. Being from NYC it was a real eye-opener for me and had the privilege of serving the population, developing clinical confidence and getting to know and appreciate this population.

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