Rural Iowa's primary care physician shortage got some big help Friday.
The University of Iowa Health Alliance announced it will donate $1 million to the Iowa Rural Physician Loan Repayment program, which provides loan repayments for medical students who agree to practice as physicians in rural areas for five years following graduation and meet certain requirements.
The University of Iowa Health Alliance is made up of Mercy Health Network, Genesis Health System, Mercy-Cedar Rapids and UI Health Care. It includes more than 50 hospitals and 160 clinics.
"There are economic realities," said Debra Schwinn, dean of the Carver College of Medicine, pointing out that the average medical student graduates with $164,000 of debt.
Jobs in rural communities are generally lower paying, which makes it harder to pay back debt.
"This program is an innovative approach to address those realities," she said.
Fewer than 9 percent of physicians practice in rural areas nationally.
The loan program helped convince second-year medical student Jesse Van Maanen to practice in Iowa. Van Maanen, who is from a 160-person town, said he always has wanted to be a rural physician but wasn't set on practicing in his home state.
"This helped direct me to Iowa," he said.
The Iowa Legislature created the program in 2012 and appropriated $1.6 million to it. Up to 20 medical students from the University of Iowa and Des Moines University can enroll in the program each year, and must commit to practice in Iowa in a city with a population of fewer than 26,000 that is located more than 20 miles from a city with a population of 50,000.
Participating communities must make a $20,000 contribution for deposit in the rural Iowa primary care trust fund for each physician in the community who is participating in the loan repayment program.
Gov. Terry Branstad said getting more physicians in rural communities not only improves health care access in those communities, but it also boosts economic development.
"We can't get a business to relocate if there aren't quality physicians there," he said.
Branstad added that a primary care physician in a rural community has a more than $930,000 economic effect and supports 6.2 jobs in the community."We need to reduce hospitalizations and health care costs in the state," he said.