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story.lead_photo.caption A vehicle drives Friday, May 22, 2020, past the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences Northwest entrance to honor healthcare workers during the Horns for Heroes event at the medical center campus in Fayetteville. (NWA Democrat-Gazette/Andy Shupe) - Photo by Andy Shupe

FAYETTEVILLE — A $750,000 federal grant will help the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences Northwest start a new program for medical residents.

The grant from the Health Resources and Services Administration will allow the university to develop a rural training track to build upon its family medicine residency program. The medical school will add up to four medical residents a year, according to a news release from UAMS. The track is intended for doctors who plan to practice in rural areas, said Ronald Brimberry, program director.

Leaders of health care in Northwest Arkansas have pushed for more residency slots in hope that the residents will stay and practice in the region. Pearl McElfish, vice chancellor of UAMS Northwest, has said the region needs to increase its number of residency slots from about 60 to 200.

Law caps federal financial support for residency slots to the number a facility had in 1996. Hospitals in Northwest Arkansas have reached their caps. Money to pay additional residents must come from private or state sources.

New programs have five years to add resident slots before they are capped, and the university will ask the federal government to help pay for the new slots, Brimberry said. He said the grant will help pay for much of the expense of starting the program, including paying for a program director, associate director, coordinator and three site directors who will be at the hospitals or clinics where the residents are training.

The grant totaling $750,000 is for three years. The first two years will be spent designing the rural training track and obtaining accreditation. The first group of residents will start the program in July 2023, according to the news release.

The university must have one faculty member per four residents, so the school will be responsible for hiring three faculty members for the track’s 12 residents by the time the first group is in its third year, Brimberry said.

Residents in the program will complete their first year at Washington Regional Medical Center in Fayetteville and spend the majority of their second and third years in Carroll County at Mercy Health System’s Berryville Hospital and rural Washington Regional and Mercy family practice clinics, according to the news release.

“It is essential that we expand Arkansas’ rural health care workforce and expand access to care in rural areas,” said Eric Pianalto, president of Mercy Hospital Northwest Arkansas. “Building the physician workforce in rural areas of north and Northwest Arkansas will provide much-needed medical resources for these communities and will improve health outcomes for the region and the state.”

The goal is for the residents to get hands-on experience treating people who live in rural areas in the hope they stay to work in underserved areas needing more doctors, Brimberry said. The residents will still need to do some of their training at nonrural sites for experience, such as working in an intensive care unit, he said.

“This program will not only increase the number of residents in the state overall, it will increase the number of doctors in rural areas of the state,” said David Ratcliff, chief medical officer at Washington Regional Medical Center. “This will reduce workforce shortages overall and increase access to care for all Arkansans.”

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