Arkansas’ two osteopathic medical schools are flexing their young muscles, sending hundreds of graduates into new residency programs and starting to ease a long-term physicians shortage, according to school leaders and the Arkansas Medical Society.
The New York Institute of Technology’s College of Osteopathic Medicine at Arkansas State in Jonesboro will graduate its fourth class of doctors in May, and if patterns hold, most of the 120 or so graduates will fill residency spots in the school’s region. Sixty percent of those who stay in Arkansas will be in residency programs that did not even exist a decade ago.
The Arkansas College of Osteopathic Medicine in Fort Smith, along with its parent entity, the Arkansas Colleges of Health Education, is continuing its building spree at Chaffee Crossing and divvying up space in the 120,000-SF former Golden Living headquarters across town.
The school will graduate its third class this year, also supplying candidates for regional residencies. Studies have found that up to 80% of doctors nationwide start practicing in the same areas where they trained.
David Wroten, executive vice president of the Arkansas Medical Society, said at least some of the students from the Jonesboro program could start practicing this summer.
“The Arkansas Medical Society supports the mission of our two osteopathic medical schools to help increase the number of physicians in Arkansas,” Wroten told Arkansas Business. “We believe that once their graduates complete residency training and begin practicing, a significant number will locate in-state, helping provide a stronger physician workforce.”
The programs started instruction in 2016 and 2017, and it takes seven years to prepare a family medicine doctor and even longer for some specialties, so it will take time for the schools’ impact to be felt, Wroten said.
“Considering that between the two schools, we are graduating nearly triple the number of medical school graduates in Arkansas,” he said, and that many graduates are likely to stay in-state, “it’s a safe bet to say that the schools are achieving their mission.”
For the past three years, NYITCOM in Jonesboro has graduated at least 105 students per year, and ARCOM graduated about 150 in 2021 and again last year. Kyle D. Parker, president and CEO of the Arkansas Colleges of Health Education, and NYITCOM-Arkansas Dean Shane Speights say they are on track with their mission.
“It sounds strange that we are an Arkansas medical school and have a New York name, but that’s where our parent institution is,” Speights said. “But our students do all four years of medical school here in the state, and most will be serving the state and neighboring states of the Delta. The mission ... continues to be filling the workforce shortage needs, specifically in rural and underserved areas. It’s not an easy mission, but we’re proud of it.
“We’ve graduated about 315 students,” the Arkadelphia native and osteopathic doctor said. “And we’ve done a ton of outreach,” not only training doctors, but also giving students “some education on what it takes to be a community leader.”
About 60% of NYITCOM’s graduates accept residencies in Arkansas or nearby states. “We’ve got 45 of our alumni in residency programs in Arkansas that didn’t even exist before we opened,” Speights said.
Arkansas hospitals had to learn about establishing their own residency programs, said Parker, a lawyer and computerization pioneer who has led the Fort Smith institution since its inception. ACHE comprises the osteopathic school, a School of Occupational Therapy, a School of Physical Therapy and a master’s program in the science of biomedicine.
Parker said many in-state medical residency programs were largely capped for public funding until a few years ago.
“Sen. John Boozman helped introduce a rural training track program. It recognizes that smaller rural hospitals don’t have all the areas of medicine necessary to teach a resident. So the rural hospitals can now create a consortium to go together and form a residency program.”
From ARCOM’s 2021 graduating class, 78 of 150 graduates took nearby residencies, Parker said. Among its 2022 graduates, 81 of the roughly 150 filled residencies in the region. Parker said that last year 6,000 students applied for the osteopathic school’s 150 openings.
“We’re very blessed, and I’d like to say that’s because of our wonderful CEO, but that wouldn’t be true. We have excellent programs and a beautiful, growing campus that we broke ground on in 2015. The Fort Chaffee Redevelopment Authority gave us 200 acres to build the osteopathic school and related amenities, and we’ve bought more land and are still building. The concept is build-work-play, or new urbanism. Everything’s walkable.
“We just had a ribbon-cutting for a park we built for the community, and if you draw a circle from the center of the medical school, everything is within a 10-minute walk. There’s pizza, Salvadoran food, workout facilities, coffee shops, nail salon, etc.”
A new $30 million campus building with retail outlets and student housing is under construction now, and that’s not to mention ACHE’s plans for the former Golden Living complex. “There’s been an explosion of development,” Parker said. All of the work has been done in service of the school’s mission, he said.
“We would never have started the medical school if we didn’t need more docs,” Parker said. “Since about 80% of doctors end up practicing in the area in which they received a residency, Arkansas actually ranks fifth in the nation now in physician retention. That is of course UAMS [the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences in Little Rock] and the two osteopathic schools.”
Speights credited the Jonesboro school’s founding dean, Dr. Barbara Ross-Lee, as a hero in the growth of residency programs in Arkansas.
“Before we opened the school, we got a grant from Blue Cross Blue Shield to hold seminars to educate the hospitals and administrators on how to open residencies and how to run them. ... There was a lot of work on the hospital side, too, but we have five new family residency programs and eight new internal medicine residency programs that opened between 2015 and 2022. Those have 113 new positions annually.”