OU Hopes New Program Creates More Primary Care Physicians

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In an effort to increase the number of future primary care physicians practicing in the state, Ohio University’s Heritage College of Osteopathic Medicine has launched a new program that allows the state’s top high school seniors to apply for medical school before even starting their undergraduate coursework.

Through the Early Assurance Program, which begins with students enrolling at OU for the fall of 2014, qualifying high school seniors may apply for early admission to the medical school. Some will be given the opportunity to graduate with both an undergraduate degree and a medical degree in seven years, as opposed to the traditional eight or more.

By piquing students’ interest early and giving incentive for entrance into the field, school officials hope to address the predicted national shortage of primary care physicians. Healthcare experts expect a shortage of more than 45,000 primary care physicians within the next decade, states a news release.

More than 63 percent of Ohio’s 88 counties — including many underserved rural and inner-city communities — have been identified as Health Professional Shortage Areas, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

In southeast Ohio, Vinton, Perry, Morgan and Monroe Counties have been identified as areas with a shortage of primary care physicians, according to the Ohio Department of Health. Ten years ago, Athens County also fell into this category.

“Athens County is still considered a mental health HPSA,” said Dr. Randall Longenecker, assistant dean of OU-HCOM’s Rural and Underserved Programs. “There are still challenges, but it has improved.”

Determining if a region is a health care shortage area is based on a complicated federal-level calculation that factors in things like population, the number of physicians, low birth weight rates and the number of doctors who accept Medicaid, Longenecker explained.

The reasons for the primary care physician shortage are just as complicated, Longenecker continued, but money seems to play into the decisions.

“It’s partially because it’s less lucrative,” he said. “When you consider that a sub specialist will earn $4 million to $6 million more over the course of a profession, that plays a big part of it. It’s a challenge to help students see that in fact the most rewarding and intellectually challenging work you could pick up would be in primary care.”

By connecting with talented students earlier, Longenecker said he hopes it will make the difference.

“By working with those communities, we hope to encourage middle school and high school students to pursue these careers and hopefully return to their communities,” he said.

A maximum of 12 students will be accepted into the program each year. Students admitted through EAP will have the MCAT medical school admission requirement waived and will have access to additional resources throughout their undergraduate years.