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Published by swtimes.com on February 20, 2020

Mercy Fort Smith and the Arkansas Colleges of Health Education (ACHE) are developing a new residency program, thanks to a $1.3 million donation from ACHE with the assistance of the Degen Foundation.

The partnership provides for the addition of new graduate medical education programs, with the Arkansas College of Osteopathic Medicine (ARCOM) acting as the sponsoring institution. The program’s goal is to help retain doctors in the River Valley while boosting Mercy’s staffing numbers. The residency program is expected to begin in mid-2021 or early 2022.

The collaboration will begin the process for initially creating 48 new medical residency slots. The partnership between ARCOM and Mercy intends to address a physician shortage by “attracting and keeping the best and brightest minds in medicine in the area,” Dr. Rance McClain, dean of ARCOM, said in a news release.

“With the combination of both organizations’ available resources and aligned mission, we can create a robust and rich academic environment in the Fort Smith and River Valley community,” he said.

The filing for the program with the Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education will occur immediately. The council is the accrediting body that sets standards for U.S. graduate medical education (residency and fellowship) programs and the institutions that sponsor them.

“These residency slots will have a tremendous economic benefit in the community,” explained Kyle D. Parker, CEO at ACHE. “Statistics show that 80% of residents build a permanent residence in that location. This is huge for our community. By creating this pipeline of new residency programs and allowing Mercy the opportunity to recruit, train and retain our students, Mercy will have the ability to train its own future physician workforce.”

According the National Center for Rural Health Works, each primary care physician that sets up a private medical practice brings a projected $1.8 million to the community. “Based on these statistics, our community is looking at an economic boost of $23 million for the first 16 residency slots, leading to a $69 million influx in the third year. Thereafter, an additional $23 million will be added every year,” stated Parker.

The mission of the joint effort will be focused on dealing with an insufficient number of physicians in the region, the health system said. Arkansas ranks 47th out of 50 U.S. states with 207 physicians per 100,000 residents, and a national median of 257.6, according to the American Association of Medical Colleges.

The residencies will include internal medicine and family practice programs and ultimately will mean a total of 48 residents working throughout the hospital and clinic locations. The program is something Mercy had been working on for several years, said Ryan Gehrig, president of Mercy Hospital Fort Smith.

“We felt it was very important for us to find ways to address the shortage of primary care and internal medicine physicians in our area,” Gehrig said. “This will be a great opportunity for us to do that for years and decades to come.”

Gehrig pointed out the program offers a great option for ARCOM students as well, as it will provide local residency opportunities for graduating students. Residents will be given an annual salary ranging between $55,000 and $60,000 per year.

“Establishing Mercy as a training location for these residents provides a boost to our patients as well as the community as a whole,” Gehrig said. “We want Mercy to be a facility where doctors can learn and ultimately become part of the team that provides the best available care for residents in the River Valley. We are thankful for this donation, which will help us achieve this.”

New residents will function in a variety of settings, including inpatient services in the hospitals, outpatient care in the clinics and even research or scholarly activity. Participants in the residency program will be rotating through almost all specialties at Mercy Fort Smith, said Dr. David Hunton, president of Mercy Clinic.

“In order to be a good family physician, you’ve got to do pediatric rotations, you’ve got to do OB rotations, even neonatal intensive care rotations,” Hunton said. “They’ll be not only rotating through the primary care locations, they’ll also be doing rotations at the hospital. They’ll rotate with the cardiologists, and they’ll rotate with the surgeons.”

Hunton added that doctors are more likely to stay at a location where they’ve been trained, which makes the new residency program a great way to retain physicians in an underserved part of the country.

“Ultimately, as they approach the latter years of their residency, they’ll be able to work for us in our critical access hospitals, down in the emergency room and things like that, which will improve our safety net on patients at the hospital, in that we’ll have more doctors in-house than we currently do. It really makes a difference in the quality of care that takes place,” he said.