PITTSBURG, Kan. — The Community Health Center of Southeast Kansas in Pittsburg will help combat the physician workforce shortage in rural areas after being awarded a grant this week to establish a rural residency program.

The center was one of 27 organizations across the country to receive up to a $750,000 grant over a three-year period to start new rural residency programs while gaining accreditation through the Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education. The residency programs will focus on areas such as family medicine, internal medicine and psychiatry.

The Health Resources and Services Administration awarded approximately $20 million in Rural Residency Planning and Development Program grants in an announcement on Thursday. Even though about 20 percent of Americans live in rural areas, only 9% of physicians practice in rural areas, according to the National Rural Health Association.

Nancy Rios, a deputy regional administrator for HRSA in Kansas City, made an appearance Thursday to congratulate the center and highlight the need for a physician workforce in rural areas that are medically underserved.

“Of the nearly 2,000 rural counties in the United States, about 75% are primary care health professional shortage areas,” she said. “At HRSA, we are helping to address these challenges through the Rural Residency Planning and Development Program, as well as other initiatives, that together will increase opportunities for residents to train in rural communities across America.”

Krista Postai, president and CEO of the Community Health Center of Southeast Kansas, said the organization has been working on this competitive federal grant for 15 years. The funding will give the center the resources to start a residency program and become accredited.

“Southeast Kansas and Kansas, as a whole, is way behind when it comes to supplying physicians to rural Kansas,” she said. “Only 1% of residents graduating want to practice in their communities below 25,000 people. This will attract mission-focused, quality, young physicians who want to live here and to improve the overall health of all of our friends, neighbors and their families.”

The Community Health Center will be partnering with the University of Kansas School of Medicine in Kansas City, Kansas, on the residency program where they hope to support 12 physicians-in-training, at full capacity, with the first class slated to begin in 2021.

Through the residency program, the center will train two resident physicians per year who will complete their first year at Kansas University Medical Center and the following two years at the health center in Pittsburg. Of the 12 physicians to graduate in the program, at least half will practice in rural Kansas during their first five years in the workforce.

Michael Kennedy, associate dean for rural health education and professor of family medicine at KUMC, said the residency program will serve as another attraction for those interested in studying family medicine and rural family medicine, especially in Southeast Kansas.

“We are extremely proud and happy to be a recipient of the Rural Residency Planning and Development Program,” he said. “This is an extraordinary event for us. The financial support from this HRSA grant will allow us to develop a comprehensive program for training residents in family medicine, but more importantly, to really focus on rural family medicine.”

Kennedy said the creation of a rural-focused residency program will help them train students in emergency medicine, broad spectrum family medicine, obstetrics, behavioral health and community health. KUMC ranks in the 94th percentile of students who choose to study rural practice, according to a report by the Association for American Medical Colleges.

“Make no mistake, there will be a lot of challenges ahead, but I think we’re up to the task,” Kennedy said. “We can’t do that without our partnerships. It’s not just KU, it’s not just the CHC/SEK, but it’s going to take partnerships with all of the health care partners around this part of the state to really make this work.”

News reporter

Kimberly Barker is a news reporter for The Globe who covers Northeast Oklahoma, Southeast Kansas, as well as Carl Junction and Webb City.