Letter from a Friend

October 31, 2023

A message from Dr. Richard Friend, Dean of the College of Community Health Sciences 

The primary-care doctor shortage that continues in rural communities in Alabama and across the nation is real. Most of rural America is considered by the federal government to be medically underserved. About 20% of the population lives in rural communities but only 10% of doctors practice there. Alabama reflects those statistics, but there are initiatives proving effective at helping to change them.

The UA College of Community Health Sciences, which operates University Medical Center, has had a medical education pipeline program in place for nearly three decades that focuses on recruiting rural Alabama college students who want to become rural doctors and return home or to similar communities to practice.

Our Rural Medical Scholars Program is a post-undergraduate, 5-year medical education program that includes a year of specialized study and a master’s degree in Rural Community Health at CCHS, and early admission to the UAB Heersink School of Medicine. (CCHS serves as a regional campus of the medical school in the clinical education of its students.)

The Rural Medical Scholars Program started in 1996 and as of last year, has placed nearly 90 physicians into rural practice in Alabama.

We are now employing the same pipeline model to attract future dentists to rural Alabama communities and future registered nurses to outpatient primary-care practice.

Modeled after the successful Rural Medical Scholars Program, the Rural Dental Scholars Program welcomed four rural Alabama students, who aspire to practice dentistry in the state’s rural communities, to its inaugural class. This post-undergraduate program includes a year of study and a master’s degree in Rural Community Health at CCHS, and early admission to the UAB School of Dentistry.

Another new program, this one created in collaboration with Tuscaloosa’s Shelton State Community College, is a reverse pipeline model in that we hope the program brings future registered nurses to our UMC medical practice, which serves West Alabama with clinics in Tuscaloosa, Northport, Demopolis, Fayette, Carrollton and Livingston.

In Alabama, roughly 1 in 5 registered nursing positions are vacant.

The program will expose students in Shelton State’s LPN to RN program to outpatient primary care at UMC and the UA Student Health Center and Pharmacy, which CCHS also operates.

In October, five students began their clinicals at UMC in Tuscaloosa and the Student Health Center and are learning alongside our health-care professionals. We believe that exposing nursing students to outpatient primary care will also create a nursing pipeline opportunity for UMC. Without nurses, we are unable to care for patients, teach our learners or care for our community. We believe nurses are critical to our mission and we hope this innovative program will help us to better care for all of us.

The College of Community Health Sciences operates University Medical Center, the UA Student Health Center and Pharmacy, Brewer-Porch Children’s Center and Capstone Hospitalist Group.