BENTON - Ashley Flanary Jessup always wanted to be a doctor when she grew up. She just never imagined that along the way she would blaze a new trail for medical education in Kentucky.
Growing up in Benton, Jessup didn't fit the typical demographic for a medical school candidate. But she held on to her dream and now, at 24, that determination has paid off.
When Jessup earned her medical degree in June, the University of Louisville celebrated not only her success, but a historic first when Jessup became the first person to graduate from the School of Medicine's Rural Medical Accelerated Track program, or RMAT.
This new program enables students to finish medical school in three years, reducing cost and time commitments for rural students who plan to open practices in small towns in Kentucky.
Rural doctors are desperately needed in the United States. Nationwide, 20 percent of the U.S. population is living in small towns or far away from big cities, but only 9 percent of physicians practice in those rural areas.
Family doctors are distributed more evenly, with 22 percent practicing outside large cities, but the need is still greater. Proponents of the RMAT hope that more successes like Jessup's will pave the way for more doctors to go where they are needed.
Dr. William Crump, associate dean of the University of Louisville School of Medicine, says that outcome is likely, considering Kentucky's numbers. He stressed that "most of the counties in Kentucky that are underserved are only underserved by an average of 1.5 full-time equivalent positions. This means that placing one more physician permanently in a county may move it from being an underserved to an adequately served county."
The idea for an accelerated medical track gained national attention in 2006 with an essay by the editor of Academic Medicine, an internationally renowned medical journal.
The essay made the case that financial barriers may keep many students coming from families with more modest incomes â “ the ones most likely to choose a rural medical path â “ from considering medical school. At the same time, a strategic planning process by Kentucky Academy of Family Physicians supported a proposal for a three-year track to rural practice.