Arkansas’ Two Newest Medical Schools Strive to Fill Gaps in Rural Health Care
by Angela Forsyth | Photos provided by each institution
The United States could see a shortage of up to 120,000 physicians by 2030, impacting patient care across the nation, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges. This data is even more disconcerting for rural areas which already deal with a lack of quality medical care. So, what can be done to fix this problem? Two relatively new medical schools are approaching this crisis with a straightforward solution: If you build it, they will come.
Until three years ago, Arkansas had only one medical school in the state: the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences (UAMS). Today, with the recent openings of the New York Institute of Technology College of Osteopathic Medicine at Arkansas State University (NYITCOM at A-State) and Arkansas College of Osteopathic Medicine (ARCOM) at Arkansas Colleges of Health Education (ACHE), Arkansas has suddenly gained two medical schools on different ends of the state to help address the vast need for more physicians. Both schools are fervently taking on the challenge of the doctor deficit.
Step one is to provide excellent medical school training. Step two is to offer valuable residencies in rural towns. Step three is to get them to stay. According to the 2017 Review of Physician and Advanced Practitioner Recruitment Incentives, the number of students graduating from medical school has increased 27.5 percent from 2002 to 2016, but the number of residencies available only increased by 8 percent in that same period. And that means qualified graduates can’t find residencies and, therefore, can’t complete their training to become physicians.
Now with the addition of NYITCOM at A-State in Jonesboro and ARCOM in Fort Smith, more residencies are opening up for medical students – particularly in these crucial rural areas. ARCOM Dean Rance McClain is excited about the role his school is playing in helping to fill a great need.
“Look at the time we and NYIT started,” McClain says. “Prior to that, the only school at the time was UAMS in Little Rock. We have good, qualified students coming from right here in Arkansas. We can focus on them, strengthen that bond to the state and get them to stay here. There are more qualified students in the state of Arkansas than UAMS could ever accept by their numbers.”
“UAMS has done so much since its inception,” he says. “It’s the oldest medical school and has produced many graduates. I was a graduate of their residency program, but the job at hand is too big for one medical school. We need collaboration and partnership between all medical schools and residency programs in the state of Arkansas to change what is needed for better health care for our citizens.”
With its inaugural class now finishing up its second year of school, ARCOM has 300 students and is growing at an exponential pace. Next year, it will welcome another 150 students for their first year and prepare to graduate its first class in 2021. In the meantime, the school is also gearing up to offer new post-graduate programs for physician assistant, occupational therapy, physical therapy and a master of science in biomedicine, as well as expanding student housing and constructing a second building for the new programs.
The origin of ARCOM began when Sparks Regional Medical Center was sold a few years ago. After selling off assets and paying liabilities, it was discovered there would be a surplus of money. With the proceeds, the Degen Foundation was formed to look for an opportunity to grow health care in Arkansas. It was decided that the start of a new osteopathic school would be an ideal way to use that money in a self-sustaining form that would educate several future generations.
McClain emphasizes the integral role ACHE President and CEO Kyle Parker played in the first years the school was being formed, noting that he was retired and not willing to come back to work just for a job.
“He came out of retirement because this opportunity fulfilled an area he was passionate about – changing the face of health care,” McClain explains. “He came out for a passion, and he built a team around him to make his dream a reality.” One of the first to be added to the team was ARCOM founding dean Ray E. Stowers, who is now the vice president of academic affairs and provost at ACHE. McClain followed him into the role of dean in January of this year.
Having grown up in an Arkansas town of 7,000 people, McClain has experienced the gap in rural healthcare first hand.
“I’m passionate – and the school is, too – about our mission to produce primary care physicians to serve in rural and underserved areas,” he says. “Part of that mission evolves from the fact that Arkansas is consistently ranked near the bottom of the states in the country for access to care in rural and underserved areas.”
The school’s strategy has been to not only attract students to come study in Arkansas, but to also provide them with residency programs in these communities, so they have the opportunity to fall in love with the area and stay within in the state once they finish. According to McClain, all the available data shows that a student is likely to stay and go into practice in the geographical area of their residency training.
“Our state desperately needs more residency programs, and we’re out there doing everything we can to work with local hospitals and facilities to develop programs to continue to provide for the state of Arkansas.”
ARCOM’s facility was awarded outstanding design in the post-secondary education category by Architectural Portfolio for layout that allows conducive flow for students to get from room to room. Learning areas are stacked with high-level equipment such as 64K cameras, state-of-the-art audio and visual equipment and two different forms of Wi-Fi so there’s never an interruption.
Three years after opening, NYIT at A-State will graduate its first class in 2020. As an additional location to the original NYIT, the Jonesboro campus has all the benefits of the well-established New York school’s curriculum that has produced more than 7,000 alumni worldwide. The Arkansas campus is the only NYIT extension in the United States. The founding of this school was sparked by perfect timing. A-State already had a robust school of health professions from occupational therapy to radiology technology, but what it didn’t have was a medical school. The staff began looking for a partnership to bring a medical school on campus. At the same time, NYIT was looking to create an additional location. After conversations began, it flourished from there.
Similarly to ARCOM, NYIT at A-State is a private school and fully self-sustainable on student tuition. It currently has 350 students with 115 per class and is welcoming its fourth class this fall. The school is well-furnished in technology with HDTV and Apple TVs in common areas, cameras in anatomy rooms to show students dissections as teachers instruct, 3D printers for modeling, virtual reality, smartboards and iPads that are given to each student on the first day of school preloaded with curriculum and library database access.
“The creation of this medical school was largely to address the physician workforce shortage in Arkansas and this region of the nation,” Speights reiterates. “We have some counties in Arkansas that have only one doctor for 10,000 people.”
According to the dean, recent reports link longer life spans with higher numbers of doctors in an area.
“It should be a surprise to no one that when you don’t have health care services delivered,” he says, “you have untreated and undiagnosed chronic illness. Travel is very difficult for these patients whose doctor might be 70 miles away. They might only go every three months when they need to be going every three weeks.”
Speights admits that opening a medical school isn’t the silver bullet in terms of solving the health care problem, but it does have an added economic value. Physicians hire people, rent buildings, order lab tests from companies, write prescriptions for medications and medical supplies and bring outside money in when they bill insurance companies. The new dollars flowing into that clinic will be turned around to impact the growth of the community. A family physician generates between $800,000 and $1.2 million for a community.
NYIT at A-State begins by recruiting students who have grown up in smaller towns. Speights, who was born and raised in Arkadelphia, attests to the idea that people from small towns appreciate that lifestyle while those from metropolitan areas have a harder time understanding the attraction. The school targets students first from nearby small towns who are more likely to stay close once they become physicians and then fills the rest of the spots with outside individuals. The curriculum mandates all students take a class on population health which teaches them what it’s like to be a community-based physician and all students are required to do a rotation in a rural Arkansas area.
• Total medical school enrollment: 162
• Total male: 55%
• Total female: 45%
• First-year enrollment: 162
• First-year male: 55%
• First-year female: 45%
• First-year in-state: 21%
• First-year out-of-state: 79%
Majors of First-Year Class
• Science majors: 83%
• Non-Science majors: 17%
• Graduate degree(s): 33%
• NYITCOM at Arkansas State University enrollment: 115 per class per year.
• In the 2017-2018 academic year, NYITCOM at A-State has 230 first and second-year medical students, with more than two-thirds from the Mississippi Delta Region.
Top Six States Represented
Undergraduate Institutions Represented
• Arkansas State University
• Baylor University
• East Tennessee State University
• Harding University
• Loyola University
• Rhodes College
• Tulane University
• University of Arkansas
• University of Illinois
• University of Missouri
• University of New Orleans