HATTIESBURG, Miss. (AP) — Starting a medical school at William Carey University was a formidable task.
"It was a huge undertaking for William Carey. We had never undertaken anything of this magnitude at all," William Carey President Tommy King said. "There was a lot of skepticism and doubt locally, internally and throughout the state."
Becoming a member of William Carey's first medical class in 2010 also was a formidable task.
"There were some bumps and some bruises at first," said Jeremy Rainey of Clinton, a member of the inaugural class.
Despite the doubts, and despite the bruises, William Carey's College of Osteopathic Medicine will triumphantly cross a finish line of sorts this month and not just because the school graduates its first four-year class of 91 students on May 24.
School officials recently received the golden trophy that comes with graduating an initial class. They now have full seven-year accreditation with the American Osteopathic Association Council's Commission on Osteopathic Accreditation.
"We're just so excited right now. The medical school is just abuzz with excitement," said Jim Turner, College of Osteopathic Medicine dean.
Class president Richard Calderone of Slidell, Louisiana, is one of those students who will walk in the May 24 commencement. He's seen it all, both good and bad, since he signed up to study at just the second medical school in the state — the University of Mississippi Medical Center being the other — in 2010.
Calderone was one of 1,100 students to apply for Carey's first class. That number has since ballooned to 2,500 applicants for this past academic year.
"When I first got here, I knew it was right for me, but I couldn't tell you it was right for a lot of other students," Calderone said.
He holds a different opinion now.
"I recommend it to anybody now," he said.
Some of the difficulties involved overly burdensome class loads, as the school attempted to construct a suitable curriculum for first- and second-year students.
"We were taking a lot of classes. Basically we were there 8-5 every day," Rainey said. "We didn't get many breaks at all."
There also was turnover in administrative leadership. William Carey officials did not to renew founding dean Michael Murphy's contract in January 2011, six months into the school's first year.
"That was kind of a personal thing for all us. It was concerning to us," Rainey said. "We hunkered down. We worked with the school, and the school worked with us."
"I think there was a feeling of uncertainty," Calderone said. "Nobody understood why, or what that meant for us down the road, accreditation-wise."
Adding to the uncertainty were the firings of two faculty members Jeff Evans and John Bailey. They were president and vice president respectively of the College of Osteopathic Medicine's faculty congress. School officials never publicly discussed the reasons for the firings.
"It was concerning to us because they were student favorites," Rainey said. "They were huge student advocates."
Calderone said student concerns didn't dissipate until Turner took over as dean in early 2013..
"Once Dr. Jim Turner took over, he hit the ground running," Calderone said. "He really impressed everybody with what he was able to accomplish in a short amount of time, and take us out of that cloud of uncertainty."
One of the school's changes, under Turner's leadership, has been streamlining student coursework.
"What we've spent the last 18 months doing is identifying where things were being taught twice (or three or four times, in some cases), and trying to eliminate some of that overlap," Turner said. "By doing that we've reduced some of that contact time from 34 hours to 25 hours."
Turner said this has helped students get a handle on a more manageable workload.
"When you're in class 34 hours a week, when you get home, you're exhausted and it is almost impossible to study," he said.
Calderone and Rainey plan to do their residencies at the University Medical Center in Jackson.
Calderone, who will practice internal medicine and pediatrics, said staying close to William Carey was one of the reasons he decided to accept a residency at UMMC.
"The chance to be close to home and still be active with William Carey as I go into this next level," he said. "The school has been really receptive to keeping some of the students they've trained in some kind of role, even a faculty role, down the road."
They are the exceptions. Of the 89 graduating students who have been matched with a residency site only 19 are staying in Mississippi.
"Statistically speaking, 50 percent of all students will stay within a 50-mile area of where they do their residency," Turner said. "So the fact that there's only roughly 20 percent of the students staying within Mississippi means that we could end up losing the other 80 percent to other states."
The problem is a dearth of residency sites in the state for primary care physicians, said Turner and King. Of the 91 graduates this year, 33 are doing their residencies in family medicine.
"If we want to keep doctors both UMMC graduates and William Carey graduates we have to find a way to provide residency sites in Mississippi," King said.
Forrest General Hospital is opening its first six residency slots July 1, thanks to funding from the Legislature. The three-year residency program is intended for family medicine physicians who will work at Forrest General and Hattiesburg Clinic.
Mississippi, however, still lags behind its neighboring states in family medicine residency slots.
"Up until this year, our state has only had slots for 18 family medicine residents, so they've only turned out 18 per year," said Dr. Eric Hale, a family medicine practitioner at Hattiesburg Clinic, who will direct Forrest General's residency program.
"None of our surrounding states Alabama, Tennessee, Louisiana, Florida, Georgia produce less than 51 per year. This will help. We are still behind the curve."
Dr. John Mitchell, director of the Mississippi Office of Physician Workforce, said one of the missions of his office is to help create more in-state residency slots in an effort to combat the state's overall physician-to-patient deficit. Mississippi's ratio ranks last in the nation.
Creating these slots is a costly venture. In recent years, the state has seen new medical residencies open in Meridian, Corinth and Tupelo.
"We're making some inroads into it slowly, but surely," he said.
Three of the six Forrest General slots will be filled by William Carey students, with the remaining coming from UMMC and Louisiana State University.
"It's good fortune that it (the residency program) coincided with William Carey's development here in Hattiesburg and that both of the programs are coming to fruition at the same time," Hale said.
The lack of residency sites not only undercuts William Carey's medical mission, it also thwarts any future plans for the school's expansion.
King said the school's classroom space can accommodate between 130-140 student classes — up from 100 now — but that kind of increase will not happen with the state's current medical climate.
"When you apply for an increase in class size, you have to prove that you have enough residency sites for it," King said. "Right now, we can't do that."
Information from: The Hattiesburg American, http://www.hattiesburgamerican.com