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Ryan Williams: Residency program will transform health care, address rural physician shortage

During my service to the 42nd District and the state of Tennessee, I have found that one of the greatest challenges facing us is the recruitment and retention of medical professionals within our rural communities.

Current studies show that by 2032, the United States will face a shortage of more than 122,000 physicians due in most part to our aging population — which is growing at the largest pace in history.  These current and expected shortages will be felt in our rural communities earlier and more acutely than in other regions with larger populations. In fact, the Upper Cumberland region has already begun to feel the effects. Many of our rural hospitals have found it difficult to maintain access to quality health care while also ensuring Tennesseans can utilize lifesaving services.

For several years, many of my colleagues and I have attempted to help in the recruitment of physicians to Tennessee by increasing the number of Graduate Medical Education (GME) residency positions available within our institutions of higher learning.  This year my friend and colleague, Rep. Kevin Vaughan, worked to create a solution that expands existing residency programs at East Tennessee State University, as well as our University of Tennessee medical schools by utilizing additional funding. This forward-thinking, $4 million investment — led by Chairman Vaughan — was unanimously supported by members of the General Assembly and by Gov. Bill Lee.

As part of the discussions surrounding this solution, Sen. John Stevens and I fought for and secured an additional $1.5 million for a new community-sponsored rural residency training program with Lincoln Memorial University as a program partner.  Through investment into the Tennessee Higher Education Commission (THEC), this new community-sponsored rural residency training program would be accredited by the Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education (ACGME) in the disciplines of both Family and General Internal Medicine.

The rural residency program consists of three rural community hospitals, one in each grand division, where primary care physicians can serve the medically underserved. These would include rural hospitals that have not previously received federal funding for residency training. Participating hospitals would also be eligible to receive funds from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) for Direct Medical Education (DME) expenses and Indirect Medical Education (IME) expenses. All funds would sustain these programs once the initial state funding ceases.

Since federal dollars are recurring, additional GME spots would become available every year of the program’s existence. Rural clinics and similar organizations that are eligible for funding through the Health Resources Services Administration (HRSA) Teaching Health Center graduate medical education (THCGME) grants are also eligible for the program and these additional resources.

Approximately 83 percent of physicians have said they will remain in their communities upon completion of their residencies. This new partnership between our General Assembly, Gov. Lee, and LMU will undoubtedly enhance health care services in rural Tennessee by placing accredited positions in our underserved, rural markets, which will help in both physician recruitment and retention. It will also increase the number of patients able to be seen by both residents, which will benefit our hospitals by enhancing profitability within their facilities. Discussions between LMU and Cookeville Regional Medical Center are currently ongoing, and I am hopeful our community will have the opportunity to participate in this venture.

The Rural Medical Residency program will continue to increase access, improve quality, and promote affordability, which will ultimately enhance the quality of life and the overall health of our rural Tennesseans. Conservative solutions like these are critical in our ongoing fight to transform health care across all three grand divisions of Tennessee by putting our patients first!


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