With hospitals closing across Missouri, access to physicians and healthcare is becoming difficult in rural communities. 

Missouri has a lower ratio of primary care providers per capita than the United States. On Wednesday the MU School of Medicine received a $16 million award from from the Health Resources and Services Administration to address the rural physician shortage. 

According to a press release from the University, funding will support the University of Missouri School of Medicine’s Rural Scholars Program. The program includes the Bryant Scholars Pre-Admissions Program, which encourages young people from rural backgrounds to pursue medical school, as well as 10 rural training site partners where third-year medical students complete clinical clerkships, the school’s website states 

“Partnering with these hospitals and getting students into medical school is extremely important,” said Kathleen Quinn, who is an associate dean for rural health at the MU School of Medicine. “The School of Medicine dedicates 20 slots for rural background students every year.” 

Quinn said the University’s efforts make a difference. 

“Nine or 10 percent of physicians go to rural areas to practice. In our program, 64 percent stay in Missouri, 50 percent practice in rural Missouri.” 

Rural Missourians have a more difficult time accessing health services for several reasons, including distance to a healthcare providers, lack of insurance coverage and cost. 

“The main problem we are facing in rural Missouri is access,” Jamie Blair, a rural organizer for the Missouri Rural Crisis Center, said. “ It used to be affordability but now with Medicaid expansion being passed the problem is access because we are losing rural hospitals and we are losing specialists and physicians of all types in rural areas.”

From 2010-21, 136 health systems and hospitals closed in rural areas around the country. According to the 2021 Health in Rural Missouri report, there are 55 rural counties in Missouri without a hospital

“We are looking at one-third of Missouri hospitals in rural areas at risk of closing right now. That’s a lot. That comes out to 19 that are imminently at risk right now,” Blair said. “We absolutely applaud HRSA for giving the University this grant because we have got to start somewhere and every little bit helps but honestly 16 million dollars is a drop in the bucket as far as the need that is actually facing these communities.”

Hospitals closing across the state has affected Blair firsthand. 

“I live in Mexico. We lost our hospital very recently due to the Nobel Health Group coming in and not keeping the promises they had made to our community. Before Nobel Health Group took over we had the last seven maternity beds in the district and now we have no hospital at all,” Blair said. 

“If someone wants to have a baby in my town it’s 40 minutes to Columbia. You have to assume everything is going to go exactly right for that to work out. If somebody has a heart attack, just recently my husband had a heart attack about a month and a half ago. We went to urgent care and they were like ‘We are going to need you to go ahead and go to Columbia to see if this is in fact a heart attack.’ That’s not ideal.” 

Blair added that for many people in rural communities, access is even worse.

“Forty minutes is nothing compared to some of the other community members that are in my area who were already driving 40 minutes to Mexico when we lost our hospital,” Blair said.  

The 2021 Health in Rural Missouri report also states that rural populations have higher death rates than urban populations.

“The need for not only physicians, but all healthcare providers are needed in rural communities because a lot of times we’ll take, and I don’t want to generalize completely but we’ll say farmers, they don’t like to go to the doctor,” Quinn said. “They’re busy, they have got things to do and so by the time they go, they really need serious care. Their condition might have become chronic.”

Quinn added that when farmers have a physician nearby by whom they are familiar with, they are more likely to check in more often for preventative care. While she acknowledged that the program is only a small step to solving Missouri’s rural healthcare crisis, she is proud of the work they have done.


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