ROCKFORD —The University of Illinois College of Medicine Rockford and other public universities across the state are attempting to address the shortage of health care professionals in rural areas.
The challenge is daunting, according to Dr. Alex Stagnaro-Green, dean of the College of Medicine Rockford.
“Students coming into medical school who are interested in practicing in rural areas has gone down by 28% since 2017,” Stagnaro-Green said. “At the same time, there’s been a 30% increase in the number of students entering medical school. The total number of students who matriculate to medical school who are interested in rural areas is 4.3% yet 20% of our state and country is rural. It’s as strong of a mismatch as we see anyplace else.”
Compounding the problem is a significant number of health care professionals currently serving rural areas are nearing retirement.
The nearly two million people living in rural Illinois tend to be older, less well-insured, more likely to live in poverty, experience poor health and are affected disproportionately by COVID-19.
One proposed solution is expanding medical education programs offered in Rockford.
The University of Illinois College of Medicine Rockford hopes to break ground on a Rural Health Sciences Education Building on the college’s existing campus at 1601 Parkview Ave.
The $100 million dollar building would allow the college to expand programs focusing on educating rural health professionals in areas such as dentistry, public health, social work and applied health. The facility would bring an additional 400 medical school students to Rockford and double the college’s enrollment.
The University of Illinois College of Medicine Rockford is partnering with a network of 30 hospitals and health systems across the state to expand health care programs with a rural emphasis, including medicine, nursing, pharmacy and dentistry.
There is more to be done to address the shortage of healthcare professionals in rural areas, according to University of Illinois Chicago Chancellor Michael Amiridis.
“We need to provide incentives to these young medical school graduates to practice in these areas for a certain period of time,” Amiridis said. “And it can be done by waiving student debt, by providing scholarships to go into certain fields if they agree to serve a number of years in rural areas. It is something that can be undertaken either by the state or federal governments to incentivize young medical students and rejuvenate the rural areas of the country.”
Next steps for the proposed Rural Health Sciences Education Building in Rockford is securing funding from state, federal and private sources.
Stagnaro-Green hopes construction will get underway in 2023.
“These are real issues that we need to work on in the state of Illinois,” University of Illinois System President Tim Killeen said. “And the medical center in Rockford is making a huge dent in those problems by training the next generation of physicians. It’s a problem we have to attack.”