Several national reports include Arkansas in one of the most underserved regions in the nation in terms of healthcare. This quality of life issue led to the founding of the Arkansas Colleges of Health Education (ACHE) to help alleviate the tremendous shortage of physicians and other healthcare professionals in Arkansas.
Our mission is to educate and train a diverse group of highly competent and compassionate healthcare professionals; to create health and research support facilities; and to provide healthy living environments to improve the lives of others. To achieve our mission and to reduce the physician shortage, our first college, the Arkansas College of Osteopathic Medicine (ARCOM), opened in August 2017 in a state-of-the-art facility on 430 acres in Fort Smith. Our first class of 150 medical students will graduate in May 2021.
I am often asked what it will take to keep these graduating doctors in Arkansas. The answer is simple: We must make Arkansas a place they want to call home. The physician shortage is a national problem, and doctors have a strong advantage in that they can work wherever they desire. For this reason, it’s imperative that we make our cities desirable.
Understanding this need and demand, three years ago we designed the first ever Planned Zoning Development (PZD) for the cities of Fort Smith and Barling. A PZD is a healthy lifestyle environment that provides amenities like hiking and biking trails, exposure to the arts, parks with exercise equipment and play areas for children, restaurants, banks, and grocery stores — all within walkable distance.
There are many other projects being pushed by leaders within our community as well. The Unexpected arts project, the push in our public school system to promote the disciplines of math, science, technology, engineering, and the arts, the grants that have been received through the Walton Family Foundation to increase the length of trails, and the work we are doing on our own campus to connect to the Fort Smith trail system — all of these factors contribute to attracting young physicians and other professionals to our area. These efforts are enhanced by the most important quality that Fort Smith has always had in its favor: our sense of community. One way we are demonstrating this sense of community is by working together to capitalize on our value.
Another way we are working to attract more doctors to Arkansas, is by collaborating with hospitals throughout the region and state to develop viable residency/graduate medical education programs. We are in partnership with CHI St. Vincent-Hot Springs and Unity Health-Searcy. These Rural Training and Track Programs (RTTs) involve smaller hospitals and provide a consortium of opportunities for our graduating students. In addition, we are actively working with other major hospitals throughout Arkansas, Oklahoma, and Missouri.
On a state level, one of our legislators, Rep. Dr. Lee Johnson, R-Greenwood, has received approval for startup grants to be allocated to rural hospitals to help defray the significant expenses of starting residency programs. These startup grants have yet to be funded by the legislature. Residency programs are extremely expensive and require additional manpower.
ACHE can provide the educational component, but we need the state to provide the funds so we can better serve our underserved areas. ACHE is working in collaboration with hospitals in the region and with legislators in the House of Representatives and the Senate to accomplish these goals.
One thing we must keep in mind when recruiting physicians is that medicine is evolving into a team-based approach. ACHE just completed construction on a new 66,000-square-foot medical learning facility that will house our School of Occupational Therapy, School of Physical Therapy, and School of Physician Assistant Studies. These new programs, our relationship with hospitals and clinics, as well as our expanding partnership with Mercy Hospital as they prepare to break ground on their new rehabilitation hospital on our campus, all demonstrate a systemic development of improved healthcare access for people in our region.
There are many contributing factors to improving overall health outcomes in our state and region. Solving the physician shortage in Arkansas is a major factor in this process. It will take all of us harnessing our skills and resources and working together to make our state a place physicians and other health professionals are proud to call home.
Editor’s note: Dr. Kyle Parker is CEO of Arkansas Colleges of Health Education. The opinions expressed are those of the author.