McComb Enterprise-Journal 

Jack Ryan: In Search Of More Doctors

By Jack Ryan, columnist

Dr. Kevin Richardson, the chief medical officer at Southwest Mississippi Regional Medical Center, presented a fine program to the McComb Rotary Club last week.

He discussed the hospital’s efforts to become part of a state program that sends medical residents to work at a single hospital for three years.

The ultimate goal is to convince a few of these young doctors, who are just starting their careers, to stick around for a while — for several years or even a lifetime.

Granted, that is a lofty goal, but Southwest accomplished it in its early years when it convinced a number of specialists to bring their practices to McComb. Many stayed for decades, which provided patients with the good fortune of having the same doctor for a long time.

Southwest is seeking to join the state’s Family Medicine Residency Program. If approved, the hospital would receive and help train up to six family medicine residents every year.

Each group of residents would work in McComb for three years, so if the hospital is assigned residents each year, there could be up to 18 of them here at a time.

“This is the world we want to live in,” Richardson added. If all goes well, he said the program could produce “a bright new generation of doctors who come to town with their spouses, and some of them stay here, raising a family.”

Richardson said that despite the travails of covid-19, this is “an unbelievably exciting time at the hospital.”

He said Mississippi ranks last in the country in the number of doctors per 100,000 people. Interestingly, though, the state ranks seventh nationally in the percentage of doctors who stay to work in the state where they trained.

That means if Mississippi’s two medical schools can enroll students, there’s a good chance they’ll stick around.

Richardson added that medical school enrollment is rising in the state, largely because William Carey University’s College of Osteopathic Medicine opened 11 years ago. Previously, there was only the University of Mississippi Medical Center.

From a health standpoint, Mississippi needs doctors badly. Richardson’s statistics said that in 2017, the state ranked first in the nation for deaths from heart disease, kidney disease and Alzheimer’s disease.

We also ranked second nationally for deaths from cancer, strokes, diabetes, septicemia and the flu or pneumonia. At least we can tell doctors who come to the state that they’ll have plenty of job security.

Richardson credited former Gov. Phil Bryant for recognizing the need for more doctors. In Bryant’s first year in office, he signed legislation creating the residency program.

Financially, Richardson said each new doctor is like “developing a job factory” in a town. He said a medical practice can have a $1.8 million annual impact on a local economy.

Norman Price, the longtime Southwest Regional administrator who retired in 2020, started the effort to add the hospital to the residency program, and it has continued under Charla Rowley, who succeeded Price as CEO.

Recently, he added, the hospital learned that through the work of U.S. Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith of Brookhaven, it has been approved for up to $5.7 million in federal assistance if it is accepted into the program.

Richardson hopes Southwest gets its first group of medical residents in the summer of 2023. The plan is to rotate them through many medical specialties so they’ll become familiar with a broad array of treatments.

“We’ve got all of the stars aligned for us right now, with leadership, financing and program directors who have gone through the hiccups of setting up programs elsewhere,” he said.

Another star is William Carey’s medical school. Last month, U.S. News & World Report ranked the school No. 1 in the nation in the percentage of graduates working in rural areas.

The school also had the nation’s fourth highest percentage of graduates practicing in both primary care and health professional shortage areas.

The residency program is operating at a number of hospitals around the state, including those in Hattiesburg and Tupelo. There is no reason to exclude an institution the size of Southwest Regional from helping train the next generation of doctors.