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A new pipeline for trainee physicians has opened in Northwest Arkansas.

The University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences and Washington Regional Medical Center earlier this month announced that they’re accepting applications for a new medical residency program, the region’s first in years.

Residency programs provide several years of crucial training that turns medical school graduates into fully qualified physicians. The first eight internal medicine residents will be able to start in July, and by the end of the decade almost 100 new doctors in several specialties will be arriving each year, according to UAMS.

“The success of our program is essential to meeting the health care needs of Arkansans and aligns with our regional and institutional missions to educate future health care professionals and provide patient-centered primary and specialized care at an academic level not otherwise available in this region,” Dr. Sheena CarlLee, program director and assistance professor of internal medicine at UAMS, said in a written statement.

With Northwest Arkansas’ skyrocketing population and aging residents, the region’s need for health care has never been higher.

But here and across the nation, the number of medical school graduates far exceeds the available residency slots, creating a doctor bottleneck, said Ryan Cork, executive director of the Northwest Arkansas Council’s Health Care Transformation Division. A Northwest Arkansas Council-commissioned study in 2019 recommended that 200 additional residencies be established locally, noting most physicians remain wherever they complete their training.

“It’s just common sense,” Cork said. “As we get roads and schools and airports, our hospitals have to grow at an even faster rate.”

The shortage partly stems from limits on federal reimbursement for graduate medical education, which by law can only support a certain number of residencies. That leaves hospitals to cover millions of dollars in costs if they want to offer more on their own.

With help from the Council and state officials and a little creativity, the area’s health care providers are collaborating to overcome these obstacles. Mercy NWA, UAMS and Veterans Health Care System of the Ozarks partnered in 2017 to take on around a dozen new internal medicine residents each year, for example.

For the new program, Washington Regional earned reclassification as a rural-serving hospital, making more positions available. Then the Arkansas Legislative Council earlier this year approved nearly $12.5 million toward the construction of the hospital’s new 6,000-square-foot educational facility and other startup costs.

“These initiatives will help bring high-quality providers to the region and allow Northwest Arkansans to access the health care they need close to home,” said Nelson Peacock, Northwest Arkansas Council president and CEO. “We’re grateful to our health care partners, the Legislative Council and the governor’s office for helping the region cross the halfway mark toward our residency goal.”

Special thanks to our major investors for their support of the Northwest Arkansas Council and our work in the region: