This fall, there are 10 more medical students in seats at the University of Mississippi School of Medicine.

The medical school has 165 new students in the class of 2022, a record number exceeding last year’s class of 155.

That’s incredibly good news for Mississippi, which has faced a chronic shortage of physicians and other health care professionals, especially in rural areas. Combined with the 110 seats at William Carey College of Osteopathic Medicine in Hattiesburg, that opens to pipeline for physicians to 275 a year.

That’s really important because Mississippi already has the lowest ratio of physicians in the country with 186 active physicians per 100,000 residents, according to the 2017 State Physician Workforce Data Report, the lowest ratio in the nation. The national median – half above, half below – is 257.6 per 100,000.

In real numbers, that’s fewer than 5,600 physicians taking care of some 3 million people living in Mississippi. That need will only grow as the population ages and requires more physicians who can coordinate care for often complex medical problems.

Mississippi has a particularly critical need for primary care physicians. According to the physician workforce report, there are a little more than 1,900 active primary care physicians – pediatricians, family physicians, internists and obstetrician-gynecologists – actively practicing in Mississippi.

To paraphrase the now retired Tupelo family physician and former American Medical Association president Dr. Edward Hill – that’s some serious osteoporosis in the backbone of medicine.

The good news is that Mississippi does better than most states at retaining its medical school graduates – nearly 54 percent. When combined with the percentage of physicians trained in residency programs in Mississippi, nearly 77 percent remain in the state. There Mississippi ranks 10th in the nation.

The entering class at UMMC School of Medicine is made up entirely of Mississippi residents. A sizable contingent – nearly 40 percent – hail from rural areas. Nearly all of them come from underserved counties, which is not surprising because only a handful of Mississippi counties have an adequate number of physicians.

Mississippi has invested in growing its own physicians with an emphasis on those who are interested in practicing in rural areas. The Mississippi Rural Medical Scholars, which focuses on preparing high school students, and the Mississippi Rural Physician Scholarship Program, which works with college and medical students, have been very successful.

Northeast Mississippi has benefitted from primary care-focused graduate medical training in Tupelo and Corinth. Mississippi needs more of these kind of graduate medical training programs focused in rural areas of the state to address the ongoing shortage.

Mississippi can’t solve its physician workforce problem overnight. It takes a long time and a tremendous amount of resources to train physicians. Beyond four years of medical school, residency and fellowship training can take three to seven years depending on the specialty. There’s more that can be done to make it financially feasible for young physicians with heavy loads of educational debt to practice in underserved areas.

But it’s heartening to see Mississippi moving in a healthier direction.

Michaela Gibson Morris is a Daily Journal staff writer. Contact her at michaela.morris@journalinc.com or on Twitter @michgibmo.

Michaela Gibson Morris is a Daily Journal staff writer. Contact her at michaela.morris@journalinc.com or on Twitter @michgibmo.

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