Program helps train doctors in rural Illinois amid growing concern over nationwide physician shortage

KEWANEE, Illinois - Aging populations are driving demand for health care providers in rural communities, during a time when there's growing concern about a shortage of physicians in rural America.

"Rural communities are just struggling to find physicians who want to come and provide care," says Dr. Andy Peterson. He is a physician at OSF Healthcare Saint Luke Medical Center.

That hospital is one of dozens of hospitals who are working to attract and retain more young doctors to their communities.

Young people are leaving rural towns and heading to bigger, or more trendy cities. Meanwhile, the population remaining in small towns are getting older. So are their doctors who are phasing into retirement.

"People who grew up in rural communities don't always come back," said Dr. Peterson. "The people who have been here forever tend to stick around."

However, there is a program, nearly three-decades old, aimed at bringing medical students from rural communities into rural communities as practicing doctors.

Dr. Peterson graduated from the University of Illinois at Chicago's Rural Medicine Education Program (RMED) in 2015.

"The object (of the program) is to cater to kids from rural Illinois with a goal of getting them back to rural Illinois to practice," said Peterson.

The program is designed to immerse students into an experience where they learn about the rural health care industry.

They are paired with doctors at hospitals in smaller cities in the state, like the ones in Galesburg or Kewanee, Illinois.

Peterson said its an important program as the number of medical students coming from urban and suburban areas in Illinois, as opposed to rural areas, is on the rise.

"Kids from those areas tend not to want to go out to middle of nowhere U.S.A to start a practice because that's not what they're used to,"

For Dr. Peterson, it is and was what he's used to. He grew up in a small town in Illinois and was eager to raise his family and work in a rural community.

He and his wife are both products of the RMED program.

For hundreds of other students, it has been the key to landing a job in the rural health care community throughout the state of Illinois.

For hospital leaders, the program could be the key to ending the rural doctor shortage in Illinois.

More than 200 students have graduated from the program since 1993 and about 75% of those students work in rural communities as doctors.

The Association of American Medical Colleges says by 2032, the population of people over the age of 65 will nearly double.

The Association also predicts a shortage of as many as 55,000 primary care professionals and more than 65,000 specialty care physicians nationwide.

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