COLUMBIA, Mo. – Millions of dollars are coming to Missouri to help combat the physician shortage in rural areas. 

Over the past decade, 18 Missouri hospitals have closed, and all but one of the state’s counties is in a health professional shortage. Now, a program at the University of Missouri is trying to combat the problem by placing medical students in rural areas. 

“Overall, we have about 65% of our rural scholars that end up in rural areas, in comparison to 9 to 10% nationwide, so the problem is definitely making an impact on rural access and rural health outcomes,” said Kathleen Quinn, head of the Rural Scholars Program at the University of Missouri School of Medicine.

The program is in place to encourage young Missourians from rural backgrounds to pursue medical school. The $16 million grant will be used to fund scholarships for students. 

“Many of our physicians in Missouri are 55 years of age or older and are getting ready to retire, so they have this urgency to teach,” Quinn said. 

Since the program started nearly three decades ago, Quinn said nearly 50% of students who graduated are now practicing physicians in rural Missouri. 

“You get a mental health care provider, and then a business will come into that town because there’s a provider,” Quinn said. “Every physician in a rural community brings in about $1.3 million of revenue for a town.”

But there are some exceptions to the program, like Jay Devineni, originally from St. Louis County, who is spending his third year of medical school in Sedalia. 

“Rural Missouri is definitely different than urban or suburban Missouri, there’s no doubt about,” Devineni said. “Not only was it easier to integrate myself than I thought it would be, but we’re really learning a lot from each other. I’m learning a lot from my patients, and they are learning from me as well.”

Unlike metropolitan areas, Devineni said rural physicians become the jack of all trades, which attracted him to the program. 

“I rotate in something different almost every day,” Devineni said. “I’ve done pediatrics, I’ve done internal medicine, I’ve done family medicine, I’ve done something in neurology, I’ve done psychiatric, I’ve done labor and delivery and OBGYN. Your scope of practice is wider, you get to do more things in rural medicine whereas if you work in a city, your scope of practice if pretty narrow because there’s a specialist for everything and every age group.”

Grant money will also be used to expose Missouri students to health care careers through the School of Medicine’s mobile training facility, with life-like patient simulators. 

“Here’s the five-year-old mannequin. He can talk, he can breathe, he can blink his eyes, he can tell the kids how he feels, and they will see some of the procedures that can be performed and hopefully that sparks interests,” Quinn said. 

The 38-foot RV is equipped with state-of-the-art equipment and simulations to train first responders. This one-of-its-kind training facility, worth $400,000, travels to Missouri to provide hands-on simulations to benefit responders and health care providers.

“There’s no bigger need in Missouri than in rural Missouri,” Devineni said. “Regardless of where you’re going to practice, I think the experience in rural medicine is really important because even when you’re practicing in St. Louis, Kansas City, or Columbia, you’re going to get patients that have to go to those cities to see certain specialists because we don’t have them in rural communities.”

This is the largest grant the program has ever received, and because of that, Quinn said it will help fund scholarships and simulation truck visits through 2027. She said the goal is to visit at least 50 schools across the state within the next year.