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Published on arkansasonline.com on February 24, 2020
Written by Thomas Saccente

FORT SMITH — Mercy Fort Smith and the Arkansas Colleges of Health Education are creating a residency program to help retain doctors in the River Valley while boosting Mercy’s staffing numbers.

The partnership provides for the addition of new graduate medical education programs, with the Arkansas College of Osteopathic Medicine acting as the sponsoring institution, according to a Thursday news release from Mercy. This development is the result of a $1.3 million donation from the Arkansas Colleges of Health Education with assistance from the Degen Foundation.

The collaboration will start the process for creating 48 new medical residency slots initially, the release states. The program is expected to begin in mid-2021 or early 2022.

The Arkansas College of Osteopathic Medicine-Mercy partnership intends to address a physician shortage by “attracting and keeping the best and brightest minds in medicine to the area,” said Dr. Rance McClain, the college’s dean.

“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,” McClain said in the news release.

The release said that, according to the American Association of Medical Colleges, Arkansas has 207 physicians per 100,000 residents, ranking 47th out of all states in the nation. The national median is 257.6.

The new residencies will include internal medicine and family practice positions. Ultimately, the program, which Mercy had been working on for several years, will mean a total of 48 residents working throughout the hospital and clinic locations.

“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,” Mercy Hospital Fort Smith President Ryan Gehrig said in the release. “This will be a great opportunity for us to do that for years and decades to come.”

Gehrig said the program will also provide local residency opportunities for graduating Arkansas College of Osteopathic Medicine students. Residents will be given an annual salary of between $55,000 and $60,000.

“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 medical residents will work in a variety of settings. These includes inpatient services in the hospitals and outpatient care in the clinics, as well as research or scholarly activity.

Mercy Clinic President David Hunton said participants will rotate through almost all specialties at Mercy Fort Smith, according to the release. Doctors are more likely to stay at a location where they have been trained, making the new residency program a 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,” Hunton said. “It really makes a difference in the quality of care that takes place.”

In addition, Kyle D. Parker, chief executive officer at the Arkansas Colleges of Health Education, said in the release that the new residency slots will have “a tremendous economic benefit in the community.”

“Statistics show that 80% of residents build a permanent residence in that location,” Parker said. “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.”

The release states that, according to the National Center for Rural Health Works, every primary care physician who establishes a private medical practice draws 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,” Parker said. “Thereafter, an additional $23 million will be added every year.”

Filing for the residency program with the Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education, the accrediting body that sets standards for U.S. graduate medical education programs and the institutions that sponsor them, will take place immediately.