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JEFFERSON — Ashe Memorial Hospital recently received a $750,000 grant from the Health Resources and Services Administration for the development of a rural residency program in conjunction with Campbell University, according to AMH CEO Laura Lambeth.

The federally funded program is part of a national initiative to expand the physician workforce in rural areas by developing new, sustainable residency programs in the medical field, according to a press release from the United States Health and Human Services Department.

Once the program is implemented, Lambeth said it will address a number of needs for medical practitioners and patients in the county.

“We have struggled with having enough primary care physicians in Ashe County,” Lambeth said, adding that in some cases, it takes 15 months to schedule a physical with some practices.

“The county, without a doubt, is underserved,” Lambeth said. “What we’re trying to do is find a mechanism where we can recruit full-time primary care physicians to reside in Ashe County.”

The grant will be used to cover all expenses associated with the rural residency program, Lambeth said. In order to get started, AMH will have to hire a program director and medical director, develop a curriculum and apply for accreditation.

The application will be reviewed by the Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education to be initially accredited, followed by an on-site visit from ACGME to be certified as a residency training site.

Robin King-Thiele, associate dean of post graduate affairs and designated institutional officer of graduate medical education at Campbell University, said that accreditation from ACGME is not a guarantee, but because of AMH’s previous involvement with Campbell’s family medicine residency program, AMH has already met some of the ACGME requirements.

After applying and receiving accreditation, which Lambeth said could take as long as a year, AMH can then move forward with interviewing residents from Campbell University and starting the program. Overall, Lambeth estimated that the start-up process could take up to three years.

In the long term, Lambeth said she hopes that through the development and implementation of this rural residency program, residents who work in Ashe County will decide to stay. Statistically, King-Thiele said that around 60 percent of people who train in an area will stay within 50 miles of that location after beginning their practice.

“Our hope is that we can start making an impact on some of these physician shortage areas by putting training opportunities in those areas,” King-Thiele said.

King-Thiele also noted several other immediate impacts the program could have on the county once it’s implemented. With the addition of these residents, AMH will have the equivalent of four full-time physicians in an office that weren’t there before, she said.

“In training in this location and learning the referral patterns and the way it operates, it does make it a more desirable place to stay,” King-Thiele added.

She also noted that, by working through the HRSA-funded program, residents have an opportunity for student loan forgiveness from the federal government.

“It’s a win for the residents, it’s a win for the community and certainly a win for the hospital and the practices,” Lambeth said. “We’re thrilled to be partnered with Campbell University in order to provide this program.”

In total, HRSA provided $20 million in grants to 27 organizations across 21 states. Lambeth said that AMH was one of two organizations in the state to receive the full $750,000 for the program, with Appalachian Regional Healthcare System in Watauga County also receiving the full amount.

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