NHSC provides $9 million for medical students to go into primary care

A pilot program helps alleviate school debts in exchange for commitments to work in medically underserved areas.

By Carolyne Krupa — Posted Feb. 28, 2012

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Seventy-seven fourth-year medical students will receive $9.1 million in loan repayments for participating in a new National Health Service Corps program aimed at encouraging more young people to go into primary care.

Dept. of Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius announced the awards for the Students to Service Loan Repayment Program at a Los Angeles community health center on Feb. 13 (link).

"This new program is an innovative approach to encouraging more medical students to work as primary care doctors," she said.

The Health Resources and Services Administration estimates that 17,722 primary care professionals are needed in medically underserved areas to meet a target of having one primary care professional for every 2,000 U.S. residents.

Students in the pilot program, funded through the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, will receive up to $30,000 annually for four years. In exchange, they must agree to practice at least 40 hours a week for three years or at least 20 hours a week for six years in medically underserved rural and urban communities.

Though the program is new, the concept is not. The NHSC has targeted prospective physicians since its 1972 inception with a scholarship program that offers financial aid to medical students who later practice in underserved areas.

By offering these programs to medical students at the start of their careers, the NHSC provides a pathway for those who have a passion for primary care but who might otherwise be driven to subspecialize because of financial concerns, said Rebecca Spitzgo. She is NHSC director and associate administrator of HRSA's Bureau of Clinician Recruitment and Service.

Students participating in the program were selected from 85 applicants and have an average medical school debt of more than $200,000. They will begin receiving aid in July, Spitzgo said.

"This is wonderful news, because [the program] specifically addresses one of the major issues that we feel challenges the students who seek to practice in primary care, and that is medical school debt," said Perry Pugno, MD, MPH, vice president for education at the American Academy of Family Physicians.

He was awarded an NHSC scholarship as a medical student in 1976 and spent most of his career practicing in underserved areas.

"That program back then worked for me, and I think this new program is just a wonderful support for today's medical students, who certainly face a much larger debt burden," he said.

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