Last week was Match Day, and if you're a newly minted doctor, it's safe to say, with very little exaggeration, that this was one of the most important moments of your life. At some point during the day, you were handed an envelope, opened it, and saw whether or not you had been accepted to a residency program at the hospital of your dreams.
I hope you were. And even more, I hope that residency takes you down South or out West, to rural America, to where you're needed the most, and where the people training you can impart the special wisdom that comes with practicing in a rural environment.
I'm not naïve. I realize that rural hospitals still play catch up with the bigger, more renowned institutions in large and appealing metropolitan areas. You may have been hoping to open the envelope and see New York written there, or Boston, or Los Angeles. But if you saw Statesboro or Reidsville or any other rural community, you're in for a treat.
I speak from personal experience: I've spent many years practicing medicine in rural areas, and I can tell you that the rewards are far greater than you'd imagine. I'm not just talking about the bounty of programs that reward you by reimbursing your tuition and paying you a stipend each year if you choose to work anywhere designated as a Health Professional Shortage Area. Nor am I talking about the reward of living and practicing in a community where your patients aren't strangers but colleagues and friends; fellow church-goers and PTA members.
The rewards I have in mind are larger and far more substantial. Simply put, working at a rural hospital is going to be very, very good, not only for your training, but for your soul.
If you doubt it, take a moment and think about why people choose to devote themselves to the medical profession: considering how difficult it is to become a doctor, and how grueling the work really is, very few of us pursue medicine with only an eye on a paycheck. Every year, I ask each of my new, young colleagues what compelled them to commit nearly a decade of their lives to learning the medical craft. I ask them why they chose a profession that means working around the clock with little rest. The answer is nearly always the same: they -- we -- chose this career because there was something irresistible about going to work every day and helping people get better.
While we've tried offering physicians the right financial incentives to direct them to where they are needed the most, it hasn't been enough. In rural America, home to the majority of physician shortages, many naturally face inadequate access to healthcare providers -- and to solve this dilemma, we need to make sure that more and more of these envelopes you get on Match Day this year, next year, and the years after that have zip codes on them that are occupied not by fashionable high-rises but by farms.
A necessary first step toward the goal of bringing more physicians to communities in need would be appealing to the "better natures" of our budding doctors, by tapping into their innate understanding that nothing is more satisfying, nothing is more right, than following your passion all the way and serving the most direly underserved.
Thankfully, the institution from which we can guide a new generation of idealists already exists: established in 1972, the National Health Service Corps is designed to achieve here in America for medicine what the Peace Corps has so brilliantly done overseas for development, making it possible for young and passionate people to practice their beliefs, help others, and develop the experience that will make them better, more productive, and more altruistic members of their communities.
So as another Match Day has passed, let us make sure we get one message across as clearly as we can: The rural health care crisis is a real and formidable challenge, and history teaches us that whenever Americans face such challenges, we are moved not by technicalities and formalities but by vision, by a dedication to service, and by faith.
What we need now, then, aren't just more capable doctors, but more capable doctors who are moved to service for all the right reasons. Whenever these bright young men and women rise up to the occasion, America will do what it has always done and reward them.
Follow Don G. Aaron, Jr., M.D. on Twitter: www.twitter.com/optimhealthcare