Dr. Nidhi Gandhi grew up just outside of Little Rock, Ark., the state’s capital city, before earning her undergraduate degree from Saint Louis University, located in another bustling, densely populated city.
Later on, as she prepared for her clinical rotations in medical school, Gandhi knew she’d benefit most by training outside the familiar metro settings she’d always known. So, as she entered her third year of medical school, she requested to train in a rural area.
Gandhi was assigned to the south Arkansas region, landing at hospitals and clinics in places like Warren, Dumas, Monticello, and Crossett, all of which have populations under 10,000. The experience proved to be invaluable.
“It was eye-opening,” said Gandhi, now a pediatric resident at Oklahoma State University Center for Health Sciences in Tulsa. “I saw parts of Arkansas that I’d never been exposed to before and I saw health outcomes and health education issues that I was pretty oblivious to. I learned a lot about social issues and economic factors that inhibited people from receiving quality care. I developed a real sense of empathy for my patients and I got an idea of what we as healthcare providers can do to bridge the gaps.”
That’s exactly the type of experience and outcome New York Institute of Technology (NYIT) envisioned when it opened Arkansas’s first osteopathic medical school.
The Mississippi Delta region, including Arkansas, is one of the most medically underserved areas of the United States, with some of the country’s worst public health outcomes. In 2016, NYIT entered a private-public partnership with Arkansas State University to establish a second site for its esteemed medical school, New York Institute of Technology College of Osteopathic Medicine (NYITCOM), to help address these issues.
NYITCOM-Arkansas, located on Arkansas State University’s Jonesboro campus, is at the center of a rural, medically underserved region that is in desperate need of more physicians — a need best answered by an osteopathic medical school.
According to the American Osteopathic Association (AOA), more than one-third of recent osteopathic medical school graduates indicated plans to practice in a rural or underserved area. If more D.O.s have an experience like Gandhi’s, they will have a far greater impact on the nation’s public health than their numbers (11 percent of the overall American physician workforce) would suggest.
“Studies show that students who are exposed to rural medicine during their medical education are much more likely to choose a residency in a similar type of area and eventually practice in one as well,” said Shane Speights, D.O., dean of NYITCOM-Arkansas. “We’ve designed our third- and fourth-year experience to get medical students into those smaller communities so they become aware of the real opportunity they have to be an impetus for change.”
Primary care providers
In addition to their propensity to practice in rural and underserved areas, D.O.s are more likely to enter into primary care specialties. While osteopathic physicians can, and do, practice in all specialties, a 2019 AOA report showed that 57 percent are primary care physicians. This is welcomed news for Arkansas, which ranks 42nd among all states in primary care physicians per capita, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges.
In fact, last spring, more than 70 percent of NYITCOM-Arkansas’s inaugural class matched into primary care residency programs and, by 2030, the site will produce more than 1,000 physicians to serve in the Delta region and beyond.
“Our country and especially our region are facing significant shortages in primary care physicians, so we’re pleased that so many of our students are pursuing those paths,” Speights said. “They have an opportunity to make a real difference in an area where they’re really needed.”