Recruiting doctors to Northwest Arkansas is a constant challenge. That’s why the Walmart Foundation has awarded a $750,000 grant to the new Northwest Arkansas Community Internal Medicine Residency Program.
Foundation and medical industry officials announced the program Thursday (Aug. 12) at Mercy Hospital in Rogers. The Walmart Foundation gift will go toward covering the residency program’s first two years of operating costs, including residents’ salaries. There are some federal funding sources that should kick in after year two, but program officials said they are also looking for endowment funds to ensure the program is sustainable long term.
“The Walmart Foundation aims to enhance the lives of families in northwest Arkansas and understands the importance of job training and education when it comes to recruiting and retaining top medical talent,” said Julie Gehrki, senior director of the Walmart Foundation. “We are very proud to support this partnership and help advance great physicians seeking a meaningful career in healthcare.”
Mercy Health System Northwest, Veterans Health Care of the Ozarks and the Little Rock-based University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences are partnering in the new program that began with its first eight resident physicians at the end of June. The program is based at the UAMS campus in Fayetteville. Five of the physicians are serving their residencies at Mercy Health System Northwest Arkansas in Rogers, while the other three are at the Veterans Health Center of the Ozarks in Fayetteville. All eight will practice at both locations as well as the residency continuity clinic on the UAMS campus in Fayetteville. The program is expected to grow over the next two years until there are 24 residents by 2018.
The program is a step to solving the major shortage of residency programs across the state and particularly in Northwest Arkansas. The doctors said Northwest Arkansas is short about 148 residents which equates to about 3,700 missed appointments a day for those needing to see a doctor. Gehrki said the missed appointments were a staggering statistic that resonated with the Foundation because the missed appointments are likely among the underserved by healthcare.
“We are thrilled to partner with the Walmart Foundation to bring more talented physicians to train – and, hopefully, stay – in Northwest Arkansas,” said program director Dr. Thomas Schulz, an associate professor in the UAMS College of Medicine’s Department of Internal Medicine.
He said the program received accreditation in September 2015 from the Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education.
“We received 237 applications and we selected 35 for interview and we ended up with a class of eight. We wanted those doctors with a pioneer sort of spirit because this is a brand new program. We ended up with a very special inaugural class,” Dr. Shulz said.
Residents are trained in a variety of internal medicine subspecialties including critical care medicine, cardiology, emergency medicine, geriatric medicine, gastroenterology, oncology and pulmonary disease. The residency program is important to the region’s effort to address its doctor shortage, especially with regard to primary care doctors who treat adults and the elderly, said Dr. Steve Goss, president of Mercy Clinic Northwest Arkansas.
The number of students graduating from schools of medicine and osteopathy is growing, but the number of residencies lags, he said. Mercy wants to do its part to help educate the next generation of doctors by giving them an intensive clinical experience. Mercy also wants to be part of building northwest Arkansas as a destination for great health care, and the residency program is part of that, Goss said.
“We believe if we train them here, many of them will stay here. It’s another way to attract great physicians,” he said. “The field for these residents is highly competitive. Imagine going through the expense of completing your medical degree and then not being able to find a place to do your residency. There is very little a doctor can do until they complete their residency program.”
Earlier this year Goss told Talk Business & Politics that as the local region continues to expand and health care providers open more clinics to bring care closer to home, the shortage of doctors and other advanced practitioners has worsened. Mercy Hospital in Rogers announced plans to recruit and hire 100 new doctors as part of their 5-year $247 million expansion plan.
Goss said it’s getting a little easier to recruit doctors to the region, but they hope to also build a pipeline of new resident doctors with the new internal residency program. He said the program also gives the hospital a three-year trial period with the residents and hopefully they will be able to retain many of these doctors once they finish their residency.
The first eight residents in the new program include doctors from near and far away.
• Dr. Sonia Chaudhary, University Medical College Faisalabad in Faisalabad, Pakistan
• Dr. Chris Finlay, UAMS
• Dr. Nhanmy Huynh, St. George’s University School of Medicine, Grenada, West Indies
• Dr. Naveen Kallarackal, Ross University School of Medicine, Portsmouth, Dominica
• Dr. Matthew Neoh, UAMS
• Dr. Mark Shelnutt, UAMS
• Dr. Kristopher Stepps, UAMS
• Dr. Michelle Valentine, Rocky Vista University College of Osteopathic Medicine, Parker, Colo.
“We are excited at Veterans Health Care System of the Ozarks for this opportunity to partner with UAMS for the internal medicine residency program,” said Bryan Matthews, medical center director. “Through its partnerships with affiliated academic institutions, VA conducts the largest education and training effort for health professionals in the nation. Our affiliation with UAMS will continue this effort, and ensure that medical professionals are well trained to meet the unique needs of veterans.”