HATTIESBURG, Miss. (AP) — It has been a pretty busy month and a half for Drs. Holly Primeaux and James Wilkinson.
Whether it's helping out in Forrest General Hospital's Hospital Care Services, seeing patients at Hattiesburg Clinic or assisting with surgeries in the operating room, Primeaux and Wilkinson — along with four other physicians — are cutting their teeth in Mississippi's newest family medicine residency program, which welcomed its inaugural class of six residents in late June.
The program, which formed from a partnership between Hattiesburg Clinic and Forrest General Hospital, provides a three-year curriculum for physicians to become board certified in family medicine while under the supervision of tenured physicians. The program will accept six new physicians every July with a total of 18.
The idea for the residency program began about five years ago when health care officials noticed a need for more doctors in the Hattiesburg area.
"In the Hattiesburg Clinic alone, 23 family physicians are within six years of retirement age," said Hattiesburg Clinic physician Eric Hale, director of the program. "Each of these physicians cares for about 2,000 patients, meaning that almost 50,000 patients in our service area could find themselves without a family physician in a few years.
"That doesn't mean they'll all retire at the same time, but they'll slow down and some will retire. By having our own program here, we hope to be able to recruit and retain young physicians who have roots in South Mississippi."
During their three-year stint in the program, the residents will take rotations at Hattiesburg Clinic and Forrest General in internal medicine, emergency medicine, surgery, pediatrics and obstetrics/gynecology.
They'll also train in cardiology, gastroenterology and pulmonary medicine, in addition to seeing patients at the Family Medical Center in Hattiesburg Clinic.
"Most of these rotations are a one-month rotation," Hale said. "Now, rotations like hospital medicine, they do three months of that every year, so that's nine months. But they'll only do one month in the nursery, a month in the ER.
"Later on, they'll do the orthopedics, cardiology, dermatology, neurology — those are the second- and third-year rotations. So they're kind of getting the basics this year."
Primeaux, who has been working with Dr. Salman Zafar at Forrest General, said it's been a thrill being able to help sick people.
"I've enjoyed it very much," said Primeaux, a graduate of Louisiana State University School of Medicine in New Orleans. "I've really appreciated the warm reception ... and it seems like all the physicians here are really excited about being part of the program."
The program is expected to be a huge step toward fixing the state's primary physician shortage and the dearth of residency sites in the state for those physicians. It's one of just four residency programs in Mississippi, along with locations in Jackson, Meridian and Tupelo.
"The fact that we have another one in Mississippi is hugely important," said Dr. John Mitchell, who was named director of the Mississippi Office of Physician Workforce in 2013. "Most graduate education, especially in primary care, has been pretty much localized to Jackson and Tupelo.
"For family medicine, regardless of how many we graduated, we had 10 slots in Jackson and eight in Tupelo, so we had 18 opportunities for training in Mississippi. Now with this program (and the one) in Meridian, we've gone from 18 to 30 opportunities to train."
Of all the organizations that have contributed to the project, the College of Osteopathic Medicine at William Carey University — which, along with University Medical Center in Jackson, is one of two medical schools in Mississippi — has perhaps the biggest footprint in the program. Of the six physicians in residency, three are members of that college's initial class that graduated May 24.
"I think that speaks volumes on both ends," said Dr. Beth Longenecker, associate dean for clinical science at the College of Osteopathic Medicine. "We are an osteopathic medical school, so the competition for residencies is steep. Generally, if you look at osteopathic graduates going into osteopathic residency programs, there's just fewer numbers based on the fact that there are fewer numbers of graduates than in an allopathic program.
"The fact that three of our graduates could compete with the broad range of allopathic and osteopathic students who were looking for those six positions, I think that speaks for the quality of our graduates."
For William Carey graduate Wilkinson, who did his third-year and some of his fourth-year rotations at Forrest General and Hattiesburg Clinic, the familiarity with those institutions makes the residency program a good fit.
"It certainly helped prepare me for this residency," he said. "I pretty much became familiar with their brand of world-class care, and it definitely affected my decision to want to come here and practice."
Local health officials are hoping that more residents follow in Wilkinson's footsteps and choose to complete their residencies in Mississippi.
"Once (the residents) complete the program, they'd be able to practice anywhere," said Dr. Katherine Alexis, who serves as assistant director of the program. "We hope to keep them here ... because we have a huge need as far as primary care is concerned."
That's been a problem up to this point — of the 91 graduating students from the College of Osteopathic Medicine only 19 are staying in Mississippi.
Hopefully, the Forrest General/Hattiesburg Clinic program will help to remedy that as well.
"To have a primary care residency right up the street is just an awesome event," Longenecker said. "If you look at residency training, residents who graduate tend to stay within a 50-mile radius of where they train."
Because all the current residents have roots in South Mississippi, Hale is optimistic they will stay.
"Hattiesburg and South Mississippi offer a very good quality of life and reasonable cost of living, and the Hattiesburg medical community and hospitals provide a very high level of technologically advanced, comprehensive medical care," he said.
"We feel that by recruiting resident physicians with ties to our area and providing a quality educational program during their three years of residency here in Hattiesburg, we should be able to retain over half of our graduates for practice sites in the communities we serve."
Information from: The Hattiesburg American, http://www.hattiesburgamerican.com