UCMC REACH incentive program attracts doctors to South Side

Could serve as model for drawing young physicians into underserved areas

October 13, 2008

To enable young, superbly trained, community-oriented physicians to build a better network of care in the underserved areas where they learned their profession, the University of Chicago Medical Center is initiating the UCMC REACH (Repayment for Education to Alumni in Community Health) program, which will encourage Pritzker graduates to return to the South Side of Chicago to practice medicine in underserved communities.

The program will provide up to four years of financial support for graduates of the University of Chicago's Pritzker School of Medicine who complete a residency in primary care or much-needed specialties and then return to practice medicine at a Federally Qualified Health Center (FQHC) or a community hospital in the Medical Center's primary service area.

"The high cost of college and medical education often prevents even the most altruistic young doctors from practicing in underserved areas such as Chicago's South Side," said James L. Madara, MD, Dean of the Biological Sciences and the Pritzker School of Medicine at the University of Chicago and Chief Executive Officer of the University of Chicago Medical Center. "This program will enable such physicians to take on leadership roles in underserved communities. These doctors will help to set the agenda for clinical research and health care delivery in this setting."

"This provides a support system for those who choose a career in public service," said Holly Humphrey, MD, professor of medicine and dean for medical education at Pritzker. "Incentives in the form of loan forgiveness, scholarship support and now this program give young doctors who are just starting their careers the opportunity to contribute their expertise and enthusiasm to a vibrant and diverse community, without the pressures imposed by the burden of college and medical school loans."

"A secondary goal," Madara added, "is to increase the number of medical graduates who will focus their research as well as their clinical efforts on improving health care delivery in underserved areas—a research field that has historically been neglected."

"The University of Chicago seeks to educate doctors who will become leaders in the discovery of new knowledge in the laboratory, in providing care to patients in the community, and in teaching the next generation of physicians," Humphrey said. "Our graduates could make other choices and earn higher salaries. We want to help them follow their passion and have them lead us into a brighter future of health care in our community."

UCMC REACH will provide $40,000 a year, added onto to the physician's salary, for up to four years. It will initially support five physicians who will practice at one of the South-Side FQHCs identified by the Medical Center as those most in need or at community hospitals that are partners in the Medical Center's Urban Health Initiative.

"This will be a big step toward attracting more physicians to this community," said Eric Whitaker, MD, Executive Vice President for Strategic Affiliations and Associate Dean for Community-Based Research at the University of Chicago Medical Center and Director of the Medical Center's Urban Health Initiative, a collaborative effort that brings together multiple health care providers to improve the long-term health of those on the South Side, a community that ranks among the least healthy in the developed world.

REACH is thought to be unique. This is the first time a private academic medical center has implemented a program that helps its young graduates manage their debt while simultaneously helping patients with limited resources and access to care. The incentive program is open to primary care physicians as well as selected specialists.

The 1.1 million residents of the South Side of Chicago form a diverse but, in many cases, chronically underserved population. The community has extremely high rates of hypertension, diabetes, asthma and other complex diseases. Ten to 15 percent of adults are physically disabled. Fifteen to 20 percent of all births to neighborhood residents are premature. Area residents over age 35 are three times more likely to be hospitalized for complications of diabetes.

The program extends the medical school's growing focus on improving health care for those most in need. All medical students now start their first year by taking an expanded course about health care disparities. The revised curriculum also includes an emphasis on scholarship and discovery--including the kinds of community service learning opportunities which will expose more students to the rewards of practicing in underserved communities and caring for those most in need, as well as conducting the kinds of research which will help counteract health care disparities at a systems level.

The REACH Program meets a need that many students have expressed, according to Humphrey. The average debt of U.S. medical school graduates in 2007 was almost $140,000.

"When thinking about my future career I went with my heart," said fourth-year Pritzker student Mia Lozada, MD, despite a substantial loan debt "looming" over her head. Primary care "may not reap huge financial rewards," she said, "but that it is where I feel I can make the most impact with this education that I've been so lucky to receive."

Any graduate of the Pritzker School of Medicine who has completed a residency and is practicing in primary care or one of several specialties in which there are too few physicians in the community, can apply. Preference will be given to "those applicants who are meeting the greatest need in the community." For more information, please email pritzkerdean@bsd.uchicago.edu

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