Columbia, Mo. Gravel roads, small towns and rows of corn that go on for miles are images of rural Missouri.
More often than not, doctors are missing from that picture.
Eighty percent of Missouri’s counties don’t have enough physicians. Many of those counties are rural, according to the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services.
One of the ways MU’s School of Medicine has sought to draw more physicians to rural areas is through the Rural Track Pipeline Program. It began in 1995 and continues to educate medical students about the importance of practicing in rural areas.
A big factor in the shortage of health care providers is the retirement of baby boomers, said David Oliver, assistant director of the MU Interdisciplinary Center on Aging.
Approximately 78 million people born between 1946 and 1964 make up the baby boom population. In 2011, the first baby boomer will turn 65 years old.
According to the Office of Social and Economic Data Analysis, the population of people age 65 to 74 has increased in many rural counties in Missouri. Webster County, just east of Springfield, grew 15.3 percent between 2000 and 2004 in people ages 65 to 74. The current population of Webster County is just more than 36,000.
That means that over the next 20 years, there will be an extreme need for physicians, especially in rural areas, to better serve the aging population.
Despite cuts to the Missouri Area Health Education Center budget, which assists the Rural Track Pipeline Program, it continues to give medical students firsthand experience in rural medicine by sending them to rural areas to live and learn.
“The goal of our program is to address the maldistribution of physicians in Missouri by getting more physicians to understand health access and disparity issues by rural training,” said Kathleen Quinn, program director of MU Area Health Education Center.
Quinn sees success in the numbers: More students in the program enter primary care residencies in Missouri than out of state, and 28 percent of them go on to practice in towns of 50,000 or less, she said.
Nationally, only about 10 percent of physicians practice in rural areas, according to National Rural Health Association.
Karlynn Sievers, 36, graduated from MU’s School of Medicine in 2001 and was a student in the program during its first few years. She now teaches medical students in the program.
For four years, Sievers has taught in Rolla — a town of about 18,000 — the importance of practicing in rural areas.
“I think it’s really important to give students a feel of what a rural area is like,” Sievers said.