WJTV News Channel 12 - SPECIAL REPORT: Engineering Health Care in Mississippi

SPECIAL REPORT: Engineering Health Care in Mississippi

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"They automatically think the worst when they think about Mississippi, and it's up to us to change that impression," says Dr. LouAnn Woodward, the Associate Vice Chancellor for Health Affairs at the University of Mississippi Medical Center.

Mississippi ranks last on most medical lists. When Lieutenant Governor Phil Bryant was running for the state's top office in 2011, he ran on a platform of using the health care industry as an economic driver for our state.

Since he took office, Governor Phil Bryant has gotten the ball rolling to make that idea a reality.

Health care in Mississippi has never been the heart beat of our state's economy. In fact, health care in general has always been a weak point in our state.

"A lot of it's brought on by our own habits," admits Governor Bryant.

News Channel 12's Brad Soroka sat down with the Governor to talk about what's wrong with Mississippi's broken medical field and, more importantly, what's being done to fix it.

"The first thing we have to start with is building a new medical school," says Governor Bryant. "We're the most medically under-served state in the nation. That means there's less doctors, less nurses for our population than anywhere else."

Our state's rural areas have some of the worst health care in the nation. According to the Mississippi Department of Health, Sharkey and Issaquena Counties combined have only two doctors. Smith County isn't much better: four doctors, four nurse practitioners and two dentists for the county's 16,000 residents.

Governor Bryant and the state legislature know this is a problem. That's why they fund the Rural Physicians Scholarship Program offered at the state's only academic medical center.

"Education is a big part," says Dr. Woodward. "Because then we can have an impact on workforce in the state to get the health care professionals out in the state to be available to take care of the patients."

The state pays part of the tuition for doctoral students who agree to practice in a rural part of the state after they graduate. Scholarship recipient Jeremy Wells hails from under-served Smith County.

"Growing up in rural Mississippi, I got to live the benefits of the smaller towns," says Dr. Wells. "And as I've gone through medicine, I see how much they need doctors and how much of a difference they can make."

Right now, UMC accepts 135 future doctors into its program each year. 3,350 alumni have practiced medicine in 81 of Mississippi's 82 counties. That's an impressive number of doctors, but according to Dr. Woodward, it's still not enough.

"Growing our class size will have a direct impact on the number of physicians in Mississippi," she says.

By 2025, Governor Bryant wants 1,000 new doctors to be practicing in Mississippi. The legislative work is already done, the funding is in place, now it's up to the University of Mississippi Medical Center to start teaching those future doctors.

"With this expansion, we will go from 135 to 165 students per class, which will ensure that we will produce 1,000 new physicians over the next 15 years," says Dr. David Powe, UMC's Chief Administrative Officer.

UMC's expansion is part of a much larger project to improve the health of our state called the Mississippi Health Care Corridor.

"Governor Bryant has taken up this flag, and he's flying it very high," says Dr, Powe.

"The Medical Corridor is going to revitalize Jackson," says Gov. Bryant. "It is going to go from airport to airport, it is going to be a medical city, much like Houston, Nashville, Birmingham has."

And it's happening right now. Woodrow Wilson Avenue will become a destination within the city of Jackson. New parks and green spaces are in the works, and construction on 500 new homes will soon begin to attract qualified medical professionals to the Health Care Corridor.

"I think by hopefully mid-summer, you'll see some groundbreaking taking place," says Gov. Bryant.

Gov. Bryant says this will make Jackson a health care Mecca and make Mississippi a healthier place to live.

Our state's most under-served areas should see a rapid improvement in available health care. This is the first year the Rural Health Care Scholarship Program has a full graduating class. 10 new doctors will begin practicing in our rural areas this year and for years to come.

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