MTSU freshman Claire Ritter, right, shakes hands with Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee after Lee presented her with a special certificate Thursday, Oct. 3, in the State Capitol in Nashville. Ritter was one of six students recognized Thursday for their acceptance into the inaugural class of the Medical School Early Acceptance Program, a partnership between MTSU and Meharry Medical College to fast-track students to a medical degree in seven years through course work at both institutions. At far left is MTSU President Sidney A. McPhee. (MTSU photo by Andy Heidt)

Middle Tennessee State University and Meharry Medical College solidified a unique academic partnership last week to address the state’s shortage of rural doctors by recognizing the inaugural class of students who have embarked on an accelerated path to become primary care physicians.

Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee joined leaders of the two institutions at the State Capitol to present special certificates to the six MTSU freshmen who have been accepted to the Medical School Early Acceptance Program. The partnership allows students to become medical doctors in seven years — the first three in pre-medical studies at MTSU followed by four years of medical school training at Meharry.

The students, who are receiving tuition aid from the state as part of the program, will then be required to do a two-year residency in a rural part of the state. 

“I’ve been to those communities, I’ve talked to those folks, I’ve seen the situations that they’re in. This is a great opportunity for us to begin addressing that great need in this state,” Lee said.

MTSU President Sidney A. McPhee praised Lee for securing funds through the state’s budget to put toward student tuition assistance, funding that program supporters hope will continue to support 10 fellows each year.

“That critical funding plays a vital role in empowering our efforts to launch and sustain this joint program,” McPhee said. “It gave wings to our goal of harnessing Meharry’s and MTSU’s respective resources and strengths to fulfill the urgent demand for well-trained doctors and health professionals to ensure that all Tennesseans have access to quality health care.” 

Meharry President James Hildreth noted that an optimal ratio for physician access within a community would be 1 doctor per 1,000 residents, but that some areas of Tennessee have ratios as high as 1 in 14,000. Closures of rural hospitals over the past several years has worsened the problem.

“One of the ways we think we might preserve the viability of some of these rural hospitals is for them to serve as a training ground for these students once they graduate,” Hildreth said. “That’s one of the conversations we’re having right now, to identify those hospitals that are willing to be training sites for these graduates.”

MSEAP student Maria Hite of La Vergne said it felt “incredible” to be accepted into the program after hearing about the possibility of it as a junior at Home Life Academy.

“I was really interested in serving rural communities already and this program just seemed like it fit with what I wanted to do already,” she said. “As physicians, we need to be where we are needed most, and that is exactly what this program does.”

Joining Hite in the inaugural class from Rutherford County is Pierce Creighton of Lascassas.

Dr. Veronica Mallett, dean of Meharry’s School of Medicine, said the students will receive mentorship from an established physician during their residencies in those communities “so that they know what it’s like to serve a rural community and be ready serve once they graduate from that family medicine residency.”

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