KU’s first rural family-medicine residents begin training in southeast Kansas
Launched by KU School of Medicine in partnership with the Community Health Center of Southeast Kansas, the rural family-medicine residency aims to train doctors interested in practicing in rural areas, where the physician shortage is the greatest.
On July 1, two University of Kansas family-medicine residents became the first doctors to do their post-graduate medical training in Southeast Kansas.
They are the first class of residents in KU’s rural family-medicine track, which was launched in 2022 by KU School of Medicine in partnership with the Community Health Center of Southeast Kansas in Pittsburg. They completed their first year of residency at KU Medical Center in Kansas City, and they will do their second and third years at the Community Health Center, a federally qualified health center that provides care and services for medically underserved people.
“Residents in this program get to experience subspecialty academic medicine as well as full-spectrum rural medicine,” said Bethany Enoch, M.D., program director of the rural family-medicine residency and director of the southeastern region of the KU School of Medicine’s Rural Education Network. “And [working with] a patient population at a federally qualified health center is also a unique opportunity for them.”
The idea for a rural family-medicine program began many years ago, when Michael Kennedy, M.D., former associate dean for rural health education at KU Medical Center, and Krista Postai, CEO of the Community Health Center of Southeast Kansas, began discussing it.
The physician shortage in rural areas in Kansas is great, and Southeast Kansas also is the poorest area of the state, with the highest rate of chronic disease, noted Postai. “We felt like we needed to ‘grow our own’ [doctors] who understood the culture and the population and would consider practicing in Southeast Kansas after their training,” said Postai.
“Research shows that where physicians train in their residency is one of the highest indicators of where they will practice,” said Jennifer Bacani McKenney, M.D., associate dean for rural health education at KU Medical Center. “If we want people to practice in rural areas, we need to train them in rural areas.”
Creating a residency program takes considerable planning, paperwork, infrastructure and money. Enoch and Kennedy established some of the infrastructure by first creating an extended rural clerkship for third-and fourth-year KU medical students in Pittsburg.
In 2019, a grant from the federal Health Resources & Services Administration made developing the rural family-medicine residency program in Pittsburg possible. In 2021, with funding from private sources, the Community Health Center began construction on a 16,000 square-foot education building, the John U. Parolo Education Center, where the residents can train alongside students in a variety of other health care fields.
In addition to working with outpatients through the Community Health Center of Southeast Kansas, residents also train at Ascension Via Christi Hospital in Pittsburg to learn about inpatient care.
Brittany Elliott, M.D., is one of the two residents now training in Pittsburg. “Having grown up in a rural town, I was kind of excited to come down to a rural area and work in a small community, especially because there’s a lot of underserved here,” she said.
Elliott said that another reason she was drawn to KU’s rural family-medicine program, rather than the “urban” family-medicine program in Kansas City, was that it offered more training in obstetrics, a field she is interested in, because there are so few OB-GYNs in the area.
That kind of extended training is common in residencies in rural areas, where patients don’t always have access to specialty care. Since there are fewer doctors, there are more opportunities to do procedures. All of this is good preparation for serving in a rural area where a primary care doctor may take care of many different types of issues.
“It’s an incredible opportunity for a physician who might be in the middle of western Kansas, with no backup, and has to take care of things that they might see once in training in an urban area, but they might see it 10 times while they're here,” said Postai.
Elliott, who plans to do a family medicine obstetrics fellowship after her residency, talked to the coordinators of some of those fellowship programs when she attended the National Conference of Family Medicine Residents and Medical Students, held in Kansas City this year. “They mentioned that there are a lot of underserved areas that need us,” she said. “I definitely want to be involved in those areas as much as I can.”