Students, Alumna of Rural Physician Leadership Program Share Passion for Rural Medicine

For those in the Commonwealth who live in rural areas, access to quality health care isn’t always convenient, and in some places, not readily available due to physician shortages.

This year, 42 medical students are enrolled in the Rural Physician Leadership Program (RPLP) at the University of Kentucky College of Medicine's campus in Morehead. The program has a mission to address these shortages by increasing the number of physicians who are trained to provide care in community settings.

The clinical years in Morehead provide the same education as the main campus in Lexington, but with an emphasis on leadership in rural communities. The experience includes one-on-one interactions with community physicians, team-building with a small group of medical students, and the addressing of health care disparities in Eastern Kentucky. 

RPLP offers three unique courses for the students: a longitudinal family medicine rotation, a health care leadership certificate program through Morehead State University (MSU), and a community engagement elective. Students also enjoy hands-on experiences and close friendships with peers. 

Here is what some of our RPLP students, past and present, said about their experience in the program.

‘I wanted to break the mold’

Pamela Smallwood, MD, a Berea native, specifically chose to attend the UK College of Medicine because of RPLP, knowing that the program would help her become a physician with specialized training to best serve Eastern Kentucky communities.

“The fact that the program exists demonstrates UK’s dedication to improving the physician shortage and health care disparities that exist in Eastern Kentucky,” she said. “I was impressed by that dedication, and also, I didn’t want to live anywhere else.

“For a long time professionals have been leaving Eastern Kentucky to practice elsewhere,” she added. “I wanted to break the mold.”

Dr. Smallwood said her experience with RPLP was phenomenal. She connected with fellow students who shared her passion for helping rural communities, worked directly with attending physicians, and was offered a well-rounded experience through the program.

After graduation in 2014, Dr. Smallwood stayed in Morehead to practice obstetrics and gynecology at UK Women’s Health, where she works now. She advises those interested in rural medicine to avoid distractions and keep goals in mind while pushing through the day-to-day challenges of medical school. And she encourages asking questions because now as a physician, she loves to help the next generation.

Overall, the career path has been fulfilling, but when she feels appreciated by her patients, her days are even more special.

“Patients are so grateful to have local providers,” she said. “I frequently get asked if I plan on sticking around, and it makes their day when I tell them I have no plans to leave.”

 ‘I’ve already had the opportunity to start doing what I love even before I graduate’

Like Dr. Smallwood, current RPLP student Makayla Lewis is proud of her Eastern Kentucky roots. So she strives to practice family medicine there after she graduates in 2020, and she hopes to do so for the entirety of her career.

“I am so proud, and genuinely enjoy, being from and living in this part of the world and would count it a privilege to serve the people here as their family medicine doctor,” Lewis said. “Being from the area, I not only feel an obligation to care for the people here, but also a desire to plant roots in the community and help to improve it in any way that I am able.”

A Bath County native and current Mount Sterling resident, Lewis is pursuing rural medicine because she has witnessed the benefits, but also the limitations, of living in a small town while in need of high-quality care. She saw just how important that need was when her grandparents fell ill, and she aimed to be part of the solution by earning her medical degree at the College of Medicine following her undergraduate experience at MSU.

She enrolled in RPLP and gathered clinical experience during third-year rotations at St. Claire HealthCare.

“I loved getting to work in a smaller, community-based hospital,” she said. “Often, it would simply be the physician and myself working to take care of a patient. That kind of one-on-one teaching relationship benefited me greatly.

“Having been in the RPLP, I’ve already had the opportunity to start doing what I love even before I graduate.”

‘Striving to serve rural Kentucky on the front lines’

Jacob Meece was exposed to small-town medicine from an early age. While growing up in the beautiful countryside of Nelson County, his father worked as a rural physician and served as his role model. Watching his father care for neighbors and friends influenced Meece’s decision to enroll in RPLP.

“The University of Kentucky is deeply aligned with expanding access to quality health care in more rural regions of the state, and RPLP serves to spearhead much of this effort,” Meece said. “I wanted to learn from the leaders in medicine striving to serve rural Kentucky on the front lines.”

He calls the faculty, staff, and fellow students in RPLP “a second family” for the level of support and encouragement they have provided him through the process.

Based on the positive experience, it’s no surprise that Meece would like to practice in rural Kentucky once he graduates in 2020. He hopes to pursue a combination of internal medicine and pediatrics, and like his father, play a key role in a small, appreciative community.

“I would wager that the dedication of faculty and staff in RPLP to our success and growth into future physicians is unmatched nationwide,” he said. “I hope to settle with my family in rural Kentucky to practice medicine and lead a career modeled by my father and the many physicians who mentored me in RPLP.”

RPLP’s success by the numbers

  • The UK College of Medicine’s Rural Physician Leadership Program currently has 42 students, with 12 receiving their white coats this year.
  • There have been 68 graduates of the program in 14 different residencies.
  • As of fall 2019, RPLP had 28 graduates in practice. Of those graduates, 68% were serving rural Kentucky.
  • To learn more about the program. click here.