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Special Report: University of Iowa Students Pursue Rural Medicine

IOWA CITY, Iowa (CBS 2/FOX 28) -- Across Iowa, small towns and rural communities dot the landscape, but these communities all face an increasing problem -- inadequate health care.

Whitney Kaefring is gearing up for the front lines of medicine.

"It's about picking the right way to practice for you," Whitney said.

She is choosing to be a doctor in a rural town, the new battleground taking the biggest hits.

The Association of American Medical Colleges estimates a shortage of 90,000 physicians nationwide by 2020, especially in rural areas.

On top of that, a new study by the Journal of the American Medical Association found that death rates in small, rural hospitals are getting worse.

The study's author said it could be that rural facilities can't always afford the latest technology or specialists that help at larger hospitals.

These are all reasons the University of Iowa's Carver College of Medicine created a graduation track called CRISP, or CCOM Rural Iowa Scholars Program.

"We know that there is a need in some of the smaller towns for more physicians, so we put together the program to try to help fill that need," said Dr. Victoria Sharp, CRISP director.

Whitney is one of four medical students in the program. Not only is the curriculum a bit different, but the students also get to spend time with mentors from small-town Iowa.

"They're connected, even more than maybe some of the -- I think all the students, there is a lot of good support in the medical school, but these with those mentors has really just added that extra little touch I think has been important for them," Dr. Sharp said.

Once they graduate, they are expected to practice in a small town for at least five years after they finish their residency.

Under the program, a town like Mount Vernon wouldn't qualify, because it's too close to the bigger hospitals in Cedar Rapids and Iowa City.

MercyCare Mount Vernon's Dr. Monica Meeker said the principles still apply.

"Being in a remote area, you're going to have more challenging medicine, because you're going to be called on to do things that may be more difficult to manage, because somebody needs something that needs to be taken care of immediately, and you don't have an hour to travel," Dr. Meeker said.

She said there are advantages to the small town.

"I think if someone was to spend time in a small community in Iowa and feel connected and get to know the people, that's the biggest thing for me, is I really know my patients," Dr. Meeker said.

But, it takes a special person to practice rural medicine, which is why the university will reward those CRISP students. If they meet the expectations, they will qualify for a loan repayment program worth $100,000, or in other words, two-thirds of the average medical student's graduating debt would be paid off over time.

For Whitney, that is just a perk, not an incentive, because she really wants to become a country doctor.

"They need me out there. They need me in the small towns. They need me there, and they need me to be creative, and they need me to be well-trained and to know my field so that I can be able to use what little resources I have in the best way possible," Whitney said.

CRISP is in its second year. The next round of students will be accepted soon. The university said they hope to keep the program small until they know how well it works.
 
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