Oklahoma rural health care

Mercedez Bernard loves the windswept countryside. In fact, the charm of rural Oklahoma is one of the reasons this second-year medical student at Oklahoma State University (OSU) Center for Health Sciences wants to be a doctor in western Oklahoma.

“I grew up in a small town where the nearest physician was at least 15 miles away,” Bernard, a native of Granite, Okla. says. “I saw the impact that lack of medical resources had on my community and I want to change that.”

The OSU Center for Health Sciences actively recruits students like Bernard as part of its mission to train the state’s next generation of rural physicians.

“Who knows how to care for people from rural Oklahoma better than people from rural Oklahoma?” says Kayse Shrum, D.O., president of OSU Center for Health Sciences and the dean of OSU College of Osteopathic Medicine.

In an effort to increase the number of rural students in medical careers, the OSU Center for Health Sciences (CHS) has implemented mentoring and recruitment efforts aimed at high school FFA students.


For the past several years, Shrum and members of the OSU-CHS faculty and staff have met with high school students in FFA programs across the state. Shrum and several OSU medical students, including Bernard, a former FFA student, have visited the state FFA convention in Oklahoma City each May to attract more students.

The goal – to interest future rural Oklahoma leaders in medical careers.

“FFA is about more than just agriculture,” Shrum says. “It’s about leadership, commitment, integrity and hard work. FFA works to preserve and promote the rural lifestyle, something that is also attractive to physicians working in rural Oklahoma.”

With Oklahoma facing a severe physician shortage, especially in rural areas, the need to recruit students who want to live in rural Oklahoma to medical school has become dire.

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Oklahoma is consistently ranked at the bottom or near the bottom in health outcomes. The New England Journal of Medicine ranked Oklahoma as the most access-challenged state in the nation in regard to health care in 2011.

“When you look at where we rank as a state compared to other states, our health care outcomes are very low,” Shrum says. “The low ranking is largely because we have such a shortage of primary care physicians in rural Oklahoma.”

Part of Shrum’s solution to the primary care physician shortage lies with FFA. Oklahoma FFA chapters represent 24,000 sharp young minds.

Shrum believes that mentoring these students and showing them the career options available is a first step in addressing the state’s health care woes.

“A professor in one of my science classes in college first suggested I consider medical school,” Shrum says. “Before that, I had never considered being a physician. Many of these high school students, for numerous reasons, have never considered a medical career. I want them to know that the medical profession is an available option for them.”

Oklahoma rural health care

Shrum points to the “physician pipeline” which generally determines where a doctor will set up his or her medical practice. The pipeline consists of four factors – where they grew up, where they went to college, whether their medical school curriculum has an emphasis on rural and underserved populations, and where they completed their residency program. The new recruiting effort with FFA is a key component of funneling students into that pipeline earlier.

“We have to look at doing things differently than what we’ve done in the past,” Shrum says. “Traditionally, medical schools have reached out to college students and encouraged them to apply. We honestly haven’t had to do much. Now, with the looming physician shortage, we’re reaching out to high school students to start them thinking about medical school at a much earlier age.”

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OSU is also working to address other areas of the physician pipeline. Beginning in August 2012, the college implemented a Rural Health Track into the curriculum with funding from a federal grant from the Health Resources and Services Administration.

Students in the new track have courses focused on rural medicine and will do clinical rotations at rural hospitals in Enid, Tahlequah, Durant and Talahina.

“The Rural Medical Track is focused on training a cohort of students interested in establishing a rural practice,” Shrum says. “The first group of students grew up in both rural and urban areas, but all of the students are committed to practicing in rural areas.”

In partnership with the OSU College of Arts and Sciences and the OSU College of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources, OSU-COM has established the Rural and Underserved Primary Care Early Admissions Program to bring undergraduate students into the pipeline faster.

The program enables qualified students to count the first year of medical school as the final year of their bachelor’s degree. As a result, OSU is helping to solve the physician shortage with highly skilled graduates a little more quickly.

Though these new recruiting initiatives are only in the early stages, Shrum is optimistic that these efforts will help Oklahoma’s health care needs.

“I really believe that FFA students and bolstering the physician pipeline will be the solution for our physician shortage in the future,” she says.


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