Medical Program Recruits Doctors To Rural Areas
The shortage of dependable doctors she noticed growing up in Greensboro inspired Dr. Dana Todd to become a physician. Alfa’s Rural Medical Scholarship helped Todd fulfill that dream and paved the way for her to return to Hale County.
Todd joined the staff at Hale County Health Center, part of Whatley Health Services, in August 2013. Her new office is just around the corner from the hospital where she was born.
“Growing up here, I saw there were hardly any physicians,” Todd said. “I didn’t really understand it at the time. We would get some good quality doctors who the community would love, but they’d only stay for a short period of time. Seeing the revolving door of physicians was the first thing that piqued my interest in practicing medicine.”
After graduating from Alabama A&M University as a pre-med student in 2005, Todd joined the prestigious Rural Medical Scholars Program (RMSP) at the University of Alabama (UA). She received the Alfa scholarship in RMSP, which reimburses medical school tuition costs after the recipient serves for at least five years in a rural setting.
Todd said the scholarship provided financial relief and allowed her to stay committed to providing family care.
“A lot of future doctors start out wanting to focus on family care, but when they see their student loans, they are very tempted to become specialists to make more money,” she said. “This scholarship showed me there was someone who valued what I was doing. It made me feel even better about my decision to pursue rural medicine.”
Alabama Farmers Federation Executive Director Paul Pinyan said Alfa and the Federation began supporting the program in 2004. It’s paid big dividends, he said.
“Having quality health care available in rural areas is important to farmers and everyone else living in those areas,” Pinyan said. “Helping bring good doctors to undeserved parts of the state ensures rural Alabama will remain viable.”
Admission to the RMSP is based on the student’s academic achievement, character and leadership qualities. Eligible applicants must have lived in a rural Alabama county for at least eight years and taken or are scheduled to take the Medical School Admission Test.
The program includes a year at UA, where students receive a master’s in rural and community health before beginning medical school at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. The program concludes with two years of clinical training back at UA. Students in the RMSP job-shadow rural doctors and learn about opportunities and difficulties specific to providing medical care in rural areas.
Todd now works alongside Dr. Gerold Sibanda, who mentored her when she was a student.
“The fact that she’s from here — that’s huge. Everyone is proud of her,” said Sibanda, who has practiced medicine in Greensboro for 10 years. “She’s a poster child. She grew up here, ran through the gamut of medical school, and now she’s back. Rarely do you see someone who has those three experiences.”
Sibanda said it’s a blessing to have Todd on staff. He said they work well together, and can now help more patients than before in the county of 15,000.
“My background is internal medicine, so I never saw children,” he said. “Since she is a family doctor, now our office can provide care from birth until the end of life.”
Through the scholarship program for RMSP, the Alabama Farmers Federation and Alfa Insurance are committed to helping more students reach their goals of providing medical care in rural areas. First-year medical school student Scott B. Thomas IV of Houston County is a recent Alfa scholarship recipient.
“Growing up in a small town and seeing what rural physicians mean to those places — that’s probably been the biggest influence for me wanting to study rural medicine,” said Thomas, who was raised in Ashford.
Thomas has a background in business and healthcare management. However, a passion for serving rural Alabama led him back to school to become a doctor.
“It’s been difficult and challenging, especially going from the workforce to being back in school,” he said. “The Alfa scholarship takes a huge burden off of me. It’s a great blessing, and I’m very thankful for it.”
Through the RMSP, students like Thomas and Todd develop a close network of peers dedicated to the same kind of service. “There were 10 of us in the program, and we were all overachievers in our hometowns,” Todd said. “But going to UAB, we were like very little fish in a huge pond. Having that network of nine other people helped a lot. We looked out for each other.” Now, Todd is happy looking after the medical needs of her hometown folks.
“I’m serving the people I’ve known for almost a lifetime,” she said. “One of the coolest things is going about my daily activities and seeing my patients. We feel more human to each other. Being out and being a part of the community makes me feel a different sense of importance in the work that I’m doing. It’s really a privilege and an honor.”