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Residency Programs Receive Grants to Combat Physician Shortages in Rural Areas
October 20, 2020

St. Luke’s Rural Training Track residents outside of their office in Tamaqua (before COVID-19).

St. Luke’s Graduate Medical Education (GME) department recently secured two high-level grants to educate and train a new generation of physicians specializing in rural medicine. The funds, issued by HRSA (Health Resources and Services Administration)*, will prepare physicians for practice in small-town settings and help strengthen rural communities who have difficulty accessing health care services.

St. Luke’s secured $3.25M in federal grants to support rural health efforts. These grants will further enhance the existing family medicine rural residency training program and help establish a new and novel psychiatry rural residency training program. St. Luke’s GME researched the availability of these grants with specific rural regions in mind, namely Carbon and Schuylkill Counties and areas surrounding St. Luke’s Miners, Carbon and Lehighton Campuses and Geisinger St. Luke’s Hospital. These counties, like so many rural regions in the country, have long suffered from a lack of physicians and services, necessitating the need for patients to travel long distances for quality health care, especially in specialties like family medicine and psychiatry.

One of the two new grants designates $2.5 million over the next five years to expand the existing Family Medicine Rural Residency Training Track residency program (FM-RTT) in Coaldale, with plans to increase rural sites and telehealth services in additional St. Luke’s rural service areas. The other grant, totaling $750,000, will be used over the next three years to start a novel a Psychiatry Rural Training Track residency program (PSYCH-RTT) to improve access to behavioral health services for underserved/rural populations, with a specific focus in areas surrounding St. Luke’s Miners, Carbon and Lehighton Campuses and Geisinger St. Luke’s Hospital.

“Only 11 health systems in the country were awarded the psychiatry rural residency grant and our family medicine rural residency program is one of only 35 accredited programs in the US, and the only one in Pennsylvania accredited as an integrated rural training track,” explains J.P. Orlando, Ed.D, chief graduate medical education officer, St. Luke’s University Health Network. “These grants represent our continued commitment to educating health care professionals to meet the current and future health needs of our communities.”

What Does “Rural” Mean?

“Rural” refers to a federally-designated area based on population. Generally, it includes any place with fewer than 50,000 inhabitants, and not located adjacent to an urban area, which accounts for about 46 million Americans or 15 percent of the U.S. population. Populations in these regions generally have less access to quality care; many patients in the St. Luke’s University Health Network fall into this “rural” category.

According to research published by ruralhealthinfo.org, 50% of physician graduates trained through these RTT programs will continue to practice in federally-designated rural and underserved settings. 

Family Medicine Rural Training Grant

“Having more primary care providers in rural areas will not only enable us to provide the basics of family medicine, but it will also help our preventive care efforts, which often include education on diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease, the benefits of healthy diet and exercise, the dangers of smoking, as well as cancer prevention and early detection,” says Tom McGinley, MD, FM-RTT program director. “Above all, it will help us train young physicians with St. Luke’s values and standards and then keep them practicing here in our communities.” 

The Family Medicine Residency Grant Will Be Used To:

  • Increase the number of residents in the FM-RTT program from six to twelve
  • Increase the number of rural sites in the FM-RTT program from two to six
  • Extend and enhance the curriculum using telehealth services in relation to medication-assisted treatment, substance use disorder and opioid use disorder
  • Improve faculty development training

 Psychiatry Rural Training Grant

This $750,000 grant over the next three years will allow St. Luke’s Psychiatry Residency program to develop a RTT and to provide rural patients better access to critically-needed behavioral health services. Recruitment will begin next year for the first class of residents beginning in 2022.

“The Psychiatry-RTT is extremely important due to the overwhelming need for mental health care in our country, especially in rural areas where patients are at high risk for mood and substance-use disorders and obstacles like stigma, transportation and cost prevent many of them from accessing treatment and seeking help,” says Christine Marchionni, MD, PYSCH-RTT program director, St. Luke’s University Health Network. “The hope with the rural track, as with the current rural residency program, is to ‘grow our own’ and retain the psychiatrists in the area they train so that patients have access to the same quality psychiatric care.”

The Psychiatry Residency Grant Will Be Used To:

  • Establish a new Psychiatry Rural Training Track (PSYCH-RTT) to train two residents per year
  • Improve access to behavioral health services for our underserved/rural populations
  • Build on the existing psychiatry residency program
  • Build a sustainability plan for the newly developed PSYCH-RTT to ensure the long-term viability of the program
  • Attract, train and retain more psychiatrists
  • Improve access to behavioral health services for underserved/rural populations

HRSA is an agency of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services whose mission is to help improve health care for people who are geographically isolated or economically or medically vulnerable, including residents of rural areas. Funds from HRSA support the training of future health professionals in order to deliver high-quality primary care to these underserved populations.

“Providing top-quality clinical care and innovative education programs where it’s needed most has always been our goal,” says Dr. Orlando. “These RTT programs, with seed funding from the HRSA grants, are designed to help combat the primary care shortage in rural areas by creating physician pipeline programs. The RTT programs will create a positive effect for these rural communities that will benefit them in numerous ways for generations to come.”