Madison (WKOW) -- A brand-new, first-of-its-kind program at the UW School of Medicine and Public Health is aiming to fill a shortage of doctors in rural areas.
Experts predict Wisconsin could be facing a shortage of up to four-thousand doctors by the year 2035. The problem is even more extreme in rural areas and in women's health care.
"Women need obstetricians across the country, so we can really help to start that conversation and also really create a cultural shift with other resident training as well, and break down the barriers of what does it mean to practice in a rural area," says Jody Silva, the rural residency program coordinator for the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology.
Aspiring doctors say it's hard to find a place to get the training they need to go to a small town.
"There's not the training programs for [medical residents] to kind of create that confidence that you can practice rural and your practice can be robust," says Dr. Laura McDowell, a first year resident in a new, specialized training program at UW.
McDowell is the first OB-GYN resident in the nation to focus specifically on rural areas. She'll spend her first year training at Meriter Hospital in Madison, then she'll go on to rotations at hospitals in smaller communities, including Portage, Monroe, Watertown, Waupun and Ripon.
She says she's lived most her life in small towns across the Midwest, so it just made sense to practice medicine in rural communities, too.
"I've always been dedicated to rural medicine. I've always waned to be a doctor in a rural community," McDowell said. "I think it gives you a better context of knowing your patients and kind of the resources the community has and how your care can be affected by those."
As of 2014, Wisconsin had 556 OB-GYN doctors for more than 2.3 million women, according to the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. Some southern parts of the state didn't have any, including Lafayette, Richland, Adams and Marquette counties. Women have to drive an average of an hour just to see their doctor. Data shows while the state's female population has increased by 26 percent, there has been essentially no increase in the number of OB-GYNs trained.
The Wisconsin Hospital Association reports 86 percent of medical residents who train in the state will stay in the area, so experts say it's important to get them into small communities.
There has been a drop in OB-GYN programs in rural areas, according to George Quinn, executive director of The Wisconsin Council on Medical Education and Workforce, which studies doctor shortages in the state. He says UW's new rural OB-GYN program could encourage other medical schools to adopt similar efforts.
Quinn said the issue is much larger than women's health. WCMEW's most recent report in 2016 predicts the state population will increase by 12 percent in less than 20 years, which means more doctors will be needed, especially in rural areas that are seeing a larger aging population.
"The number of physicians per one-thousand population say, for example, in the rural area is dramatically lower than what it is in urban areas," Quinn says. "One way to increase that capacity of physicians available is to have graduate medical education programs in that area."
Quinn has seen progress since WCMEW's first report on doctor shortages in 2011. A state budget grant in 2013 helped create 11 new rural residency programs across Wisconsin, resulting in 79 new positions in rural areas.
UW's OB-GYN residency program is starting small, with just McDowell, but it will expand every year until the department is training four rural OB-GYN residents at a time.
McDowell says she's honored to be kicking off the new program and she hopes it will spark ideas to fill the doctor shortage across the country.
"I'm hoping that there'll be a kind of a push to say that obstetrics care is important, not only for the health of your institution at this moment, but going forward," McDowell said.