Hundreds of miles of farmland, millions of dollars worth of livestock, and a sky that seems to last forever brings many families to the rural parts of Kansas. But what looks like wealth and beauty to some is not enough for others.
"The community was really torn apart by the fact that we don't have any physicians," said Syracuse resident Carol Roberts.
96 percent of Kansas counties need more doctors. The people who live in the most desperate areas compare it to an epidemic. They say it is a disease attacking employment causing damage beyond repair. "There's been a group of us that have really been praying for the hospital. There's a group that meets up there every morning at 10 o'clock to pray," said Roberts.
Medical leaders at the University of Kansas have faith they can offer and answer. "We target those that at least while they're in college say I want to do medicine," said Dr. James Kallail.
Kallail runs the Scholars in Rural Health program at KU. It gives students who have experience living in rural town, with a G.P.A of 3.5 or greater, automatic admission to medical school. But that's not all. Kallail says most students leave KU Medical School with about $150,000 in loans. He says with his program, students leave debt free. "All you have to do is give back a year of practice in an under served community for a year of the loan. If you're there for four years and you have four years of loan, it's a free medical education," said Kallail.
Joe Sliter knows he wants to be the town doc in a rural community someday. "Sometimes I get a lot of wrinkled noses," said Sliter.
He's not concerned with what his friends think. He's focused on a free ride to becoming a doctor in a tiny town near his family. "I like the atmosphere of the town but I also like going out and fishing and getting to do stuff outdoors and being away from the traffic," said Sliter.
Even with the incentives, Kallail says students like Sliter are rare. History shows only one in ten students from urban cities will make a commitment to work in a rural town. Only four in ten who, like Sliter, are from rural towns will go back.
"Millinial physicians are driven very differently than their baby boomer parents. They're motivated more by a quality of life, more by a sense of mission, social justice and if we as hospitals can appeal to that sense of mission and social justice we will attract them," said Kearny County Hospital CEO Benjamin Anderson.
Anderson came up with an idea to recruit doctors and so far it seems to work. "The doctors that are coming out to under-served areas now really have a heart for missions," said Anderson.
At his hospital, Anderson offers doctors eight weeks off to do mission work overseas. "We want to not only allow that at our facility but we want to encourage it and recruit mission-hearted, mission-focused people to work in our organization because really the same people that are called to serve in under-served countries do well serving in under-served counties," said Anderson.
He believes to get physicians to rural communities, they need to offer a better quality of life. Anderson hopes hospital leaders and education leaders will work together to make that happen. "It really can't be us versus them. It can't be our neighbors versus each other. We really have to see this as a western Kansas problem," said Anderson.
The most common incentives offered to doctors in rural areas around the state are higher salaries and limited ER on-call time. In some communities, city leaders are helping out by giving what they call "doctor tours" and showing off the perks of living there.
The hospital leaders Eyewitness News talked with say the state is doing its part to get people into rural areas. One example is the "Rural Opportunity Zone" tax credit. It gives five years of state income tax forgiveness to taxpayers moving into a rural Kansas community from out of state.
Wednesday night at 10 p.m. our series continues with how some hospitals are using technology to get around the Doctor Dilemma.