Just like the rest of the country, Tennessee is facing a projected shortage of physicians in the coming years. Scheduled to impact everyone, this critical issue will largely impact rural communities, which make up 60% of the areas experiencing a health care shortfall.
MTSU is aware of the health care shortfall that’s currently plaguing the state’s rural communities. Speaking on behalf of the university, MTSU Government Relations Liaison Bill Ketron says that tackling this problem is a major goal for 2023.
“Immediate access to health care is vital for Tennesseans everywhere,” Bill tells the Murfreesboro Voice. “MTSU is dedicated to improving health care accessibility for people everywhere in the state.”
Readers of the Murfreesboro Voice may recognize Ketron from his time serving as either a state senator or more recently as Rutherford County Mayor. After joining MTSU in September 2022, Bill has taken on the responsibility of finding partners at the local, state, and federal levels to bring MTSU projects to fruition.
To help bridge the gap in rural communities’ health care access, Bill says that MTSU has joined forces with an ideal partner: Meharry Medical College (Meharry).
This partnership to bring more doctors to rural communities—known as the “Medical School Early Acceptance Program” (MSEAP)—began with an idea the current State Senate Lt. Governor Randy McNally had in 2016. McNally had envisioned a medical student accelerator program for proficient students.
Bill says, “I was Senate Caucus Chairman at the time. McNally wanted to involve me in this initiative since I was a member of his senate caucus. He knew that I was an MTSU graduate with an affinity for the university.”
Getting Meharry on Board
Given this university’s many impressive achievements, McNally was certain that it could play an integral part in fast-tracking students into practicing medicine. After a chat with McNally, Bill was advised to reach out to Meharry’s president to start a dialog.
“This was actually the previous president,” Bill says. “Dr. James Hildreth was appointed to come in and serve as the next president shortly after that conversation.”
After Dr. Hildreth got settled into his position, Bill reached out to pitch his idea. While intrigued by the idea, Dr. Hildreth wanted to take a year to consider how such a program might work.
That following year, Dr. Hildreth invited both the Lt. Governor and Bill to lunch, along with other Meharry staff members. There, the party presented Bill and the Lt. Governor with a version of the program that exceeded expectations.
“After the pitch had concluded, Dr. Hildreth said, ‘I think this could be a great opportunity. That’s when we knew that this idea was really something special,” Bill recalls.
From Farm to (Examination) Table
Since the shortage of available doctors is a problem affecting rural communities now, the program has been designed to expedite the graduation of students attending both MTSU and Meharry. The employment site Indeed says that “In total, it can take between 10 to 14 years to become a fully licensed doctor.” This duration typically includes a four-year undergraduate program, four years in medical school, and anywhere from three to seven years in a residency program to learn a desired specialty.
Bill says, “By compressing the curriculum in both the undergraduate and medical school parts of the program, we can let our students start practicing medicine much earlier. Professors teaching in this program understand the urgency of the crisis we’re facing, and have embraced this new model.”
For the MTSU side of this program, 10 MTSU students in their third year are invited to join the cohort. Through this streamlined effort, MTSU students can reduce the time necessary to earn a medical degree to just seven years.
Students in this program sign an honorary commitment form stating that they agree to stick with the entire program and practice medicine in a rural community for two years in Tennessee.
“The best part is that students participating in the program will graduate with zero debt,” Bill says. “Normally, students who graduate from medical school try to move to larger cities to make more money. But they’re saddled with a ton of debt. By taking the weight of that debt off of their shoulders, we give students the choice of pursuing more meaningful work that lets them serve smaller communities.”
Improving Health Across Tennessee Communities
Bill tells readers that this program formally kicked off in 2018. Originally starting as a cohort of 15 students, the program’s participants have been strategically reduced.
Bill says, “When I came to work for MTSU, I recommended that the cohort be reduced from 15 students to 10 students.”
Explaining the reduction, Bill says that this was done to ensure that the program was fully funded. He says, “We were able to get money appropriated for this. One of our other goals for this year is to get $3.6M appropriated in our budget on a recurring basis. Since I’ve taken this role at MTSU, it’s been on a nonrecurring, year-to-year basis… That makes it difficult to talk to these students since we can’t guarantee that the money will be there. If we can get this $3.6M appropriations funding secured, then we can guarantee that the money will be in the program.”
To Bill’s knowledge, this cohort is a one-of-a-kind program in the state, and nothing of its kind has been attempted by other universities. He expects this program to take off pretty quickly.
“We're looking to have the budget request to secure appropriated funds sometime in March,” Bill says. “If we can guarantee incoming undergraduate students the chance to graduate comfortably in seven years, then this program will be a huge draw for both MTSU and Meharry.”
At the time of writing, three students were enrolled in the cohort. These students have already graduated from MTSU, and are presently enrolled at Meharry.
Bill Ketron can be reached via his office. For further information about the rural doctors program, be sure to visit the program’s website.