University of Oklahoma and Oklahoma State University officials concerned about doctor shortage in state

Officials from the University of Oklahoma and Oklahoma State University say the state needs to ramp up efforts to recruit and train more doctors to meet the needs of underserved areas, particularly in rural Oklahoma.
BY SILAS ALLEN sallen@opubco.com Published: December 8, 2011
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Seeking funding

During the meeting, Boren and Clancy asked the board to consider budgeting $500,000 annually for the school. In years past, the board has appropriated funding for the school on a one-time basis.

Boren said he had already met with foundations interested in making donations for the school's endowment. Private donations will make up the largest portion of the funding for the school, Boren said, but donors typically want some sign of commitment from the state before making a donation. Adding an annual allocation of $500,000 to the state regents' funding formula would signal such a commitment, he said.

Ben Hardcastle, a spokesman for the state regents, said the board will vote on all funding decisions in May, after the state budget appropriation process is completed.

Like their counterparts at OU, officials at OSU are looking for ways to train doctors to go to underserved areas across the state. Howard Barnett, president of OSU-Tulsa and the OSU Center for Health Sciences, said the university hopes to establish a pipeline for placing doctors in rural Oklahoma.

That idea is in keeping with the center's main mission, he said — the center's College of Osteopathic Medicine was founded in 1972 with the express purpose of sending primary care doctors to rural and underserved parts of Oklahoma.

Reaching teens

That pipeline starts early, when the students are in high school, Barnett said. The center is trying to reach out to students at high schools in rural areas in the hope that some of those students might consider a career in medicine.

One of the challenges the school faces is that students who graduate from urban and suburban high schools are less likely to be interested in practicing medicine in rural areas, while bright students from rural areas who might otherwise consider medical school tend to be more interested in veterinary medicine, he said. That could be in part because there are fewer doctors in rural areas who might serve as mentors when the students are younger, he said.

“We need them to think about being a doctor, too,” he said.

The school is also working with OSU's College of Agriculture and College of Arts and Sciences to create a kind of accelerated track for undergrads to start medical school. Students could get early acceptance to medical school after their sophomore year, provided they keep their grades up and perform well enough on the Medical College Admission Test, or MCAT, Barnett said, and they could begin taking courses in Tulsa as early as their junior year.

The college would also like to create programs at small, regional universities around the state, such as Southeastern Oklahoma State University in Durant, that would feed students into the college, Barnett said.

Rural doctoring

Once students are in medical school, he said, the college hopes to have them do as much of their work as possible in rural areas. It's important that they get an idea of what it means to be a doctor in rural Oklahoma, he said, which has a culture that is vastly different than that of urban areas like Oklahoma City and Tulsa.

“House calls still happen in rural Oklahoma,” he said. “Patients drop by your house in rural Oklahoma.”

Once the student is recruited, finished with undergraduate work and into medical school, Barnett said, the school faces yet another problem — there aren't as many residency positions in Oklahoma hospitals as there are students competing for them, so many Oklahoma medical students end up doing residencies in nearby states.

Because most doctors end up settling in towns near where they did their residencies, Barnett said, that means Oklahoma is training young doctors, only to send them to work in other states.

“We are already a donor state, if you will,” he said.

This year, the college is increasing its class size from 96 students to 115. They hope to have their class size at 190 by 2016. The college is in the process of seeking funding from the Oklahoma Legislature for residency positions at hospitals in rural areas across the state. As class sizes at the university grow, it will become even more important to give those students the chance to complete their residencies and, ultimately, stay and practice medicine in Oklahoma.

“We don't want to graduate doctors just to go to other states,” he said. “We want to graduate doctors to go to Oklahoma.”