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Program To Attract Medical Students To Rural Utah Is Up For Reauthorization

Photo of rural utah street. / DeltaOFF

Utah lawmakers took the first step Wednesday towards reauthorizing a pprogram to encourage students finishing medical school to train in rural and underserved parts of the state. If not reauthorized, the Rural Residency Training Program that started over a decade ago will sunset in July, 2020.

Lawmakers on the Utah Health and Human Services Interim Committee, which operates between legislative sessions, voted unanimously to open a bill to reauthorize the program for five years.

Map of open residencies in Utah.
Credit Courtesy Utah Medical Education Council
Washington and San Juan Counties have the most openings for residencies in the state of Utah. All but three of Utah's counties are federally designated health shortage areas, a measure of health providers to population.

The program helps direct students training to be dentists, nurse practitioners, physicians and other health workers into underserved areas of the state. 26 of Utah’s 29 counties are considered federally designated health shortage areas, a measure of health providers to population. The program provides travel and living expenses in the hope that residents might consider staying in the communities where they train.

“They want to be able to pay their student loans back and they want to be able to live at a certain quality of living,” said Clark Ruttinger, director of workforce research with the Utah Medical Education Council. “It’s ultimately an economic decision that they can’t find enough money to pay for living in a more rural, isolated area.”

The program has helped 866 students do rotations through underserved parts of Utah since 2007, according to Ruttinger.

Other incentives like loan repayment programs can also help retain health care professionals in rural communities, according to Marc Babitz, deputy director with the Utah Department of Health.

“If we want to have providers that serve underserved populations in the state, whether rural or urban, then we have to have several pieces to make this work. There’s no one single solution that guarantees that it’ll happen,” Babitz said.

Some relief to underserved areas may come with the growing number of medical schools in Utah. The inaugural class of Rocky Vista University College of Osteopathic Medicine in Ivins is going into rotations this year. Noorda College of Osteopathic Medicine is planned to open in Provo in 2021.

But, medical students are more likely to end up staying where they do residencies, not where they take classes, Babitz said. While the new medical schools will increase the number of medical students in the state, “it will probably have a relatively small impact on providing physicians to Utah,” he said.

Correction 6/19/19 4:22 p.m. MT: A previous version of the story referred to medical and dental students in the program as recent graduates. The participants in the program are entering rotations. It also said the inaugural class of Rocky Vista University College of Osteopathic Medicine was graduating this year. They are entering rotations.

Erik Neumann is a radio producer and writer. A native of the Pacific Northwest, his work has appeared on public radio stations and in magazines along the West Coast. He received his Bachelor's Degree in geography from the University of Washington and a Master's in Journalism from UC Berkeley. Besides working at KUER, he enjoys being outside in just about every way possible.
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