RIVERSIDE COUNTY, Calif. – Living in the country may have some advantages, but not if you need a doctor. Shortages in rural areas mean some 90 million Americans can't count on adequate medical care.
That's because physicians simply choose to live and work closer to cities.
In order to fight that trend, one California county is undertaking a unique plan to attract more doctors. If successful, it could serve as a model for other communities.
Rural Communities Fare Worse, Health-Wise
Compared to patients in big cities, a diagnosis of cancer, heart disease, diabetes and other illnesses can be much worse for people living in rural communities, largely because of doctor shortages there.
New doctors typically settle down near the medical school where they completed their residency, the years after getting their M.D. when they train in their chosen field of medicine. Those medical schools are usually located in big cities.
That's not the case in Riverside County, California, thanks to a community-based medical school. The University of California Riverside Medical School answered prayers when it opened five years ago because up until that time, the shortage of doctors forced people to either go without medical care or drive all the way to Los Angeles for it.
"There are some very real health risks," Dr. Paul Lyons, senior associate dean of UCR Medical School, told CBN News, "If you're having a stroke you don't actually want to be 90 minutes away from your primary source of health care."
That's why the medical school's primary purpose is to plant doctors in underserved Riverside County. Dr. Lyons believes its new crop of 110 resident physicians will go a long way toward meeting that goal.
Staying Put, Paying Off Student Loans
"Where you finish," he explained, "that tends to be predictive of where you will establish your practice and where you will subsequently be a practicing physician."
In addition to location, money is a strong factor in deciding where to put down roots. Many new doctors feel the need to land a high-paying job to pay off their crushing student loan debt, which often tops $2,000. They find higher salaries in big cities.
UCR Medical School eliminates that burden by offering free tuition to medical students who stay in the area after completing their training, like student Madeline Sevetre.
"As of right now, I'm 100 percent committed to staying here," she said, "I'd like ideally to go to residency here and then once graduating from residency stay within this area."
After growing up in Riverside County, Madeline knows all too well the pain of not having access to medical care.
"I really connect with a lot of this community," she said, "A lot of them are homeless or struggling below the poverty line, kind of have on-and-off health insurance, which are all things I encountered when I was younger."
Clinics Instead of Expensive Teaching Hospital
Unlike many medical schools, UCR Medical School doesn't bother with a big, expensive teaching hospital. Resident physicians instead train at already existing health care facilities that are smaller and scattered across the county.
Obstetrics resident Dr. Trina Mansour already sees her presence in Riverside County making a difference.
"There's patients that had no prenatal care and they come in for delivery and we have no idea what their medical background is if they've ever had surgery before if the baby has any anomalies," she said.
Research shows most doctors would like to set up shop near their extended family, if possible. UCR Medical School's admission process takes advantage of that desire.
"Recruiting students from this region is an absolutely central pillar to what we're doing," Dr. Lyons said.
Dr. Douglas Grover, a Riverside County native, graduated from UCR Medical School last year and is currently serving as a resident physician there.
"After my residency training I plan to stay in the area and give back to the community where I grew up," he said.
As a resident in psychiatry, he feels good about providing mental health services to the area.
"Things at home, families, broken relationships, really affect the younger kids and at times they don't have anybody to go to talk to about it," he said.
Get Right to Work
Another big difference at UCR Medical School compared to others is students start seeing patients in their first year, rather than waiting until their third year. The UCR Medical School students even opened a free clinic for people who otherwise might not have ever seen a doctor.
"Every time I hear that my heart warms a little bit," said Madeline Sevetre. "Because it's one person that we're able to help a little more that hadn't had the help previously."
So while medical care disappears in many rural areas, Riverside County, California, may have discovered the antidote: open a medical school, admit locals with a heart for the underserved and pay for the education...provided they don't take their talents elsewhere.