Wanted: Homegrown Doctors

FSU’s College of Medicine is reshaping North Florida’s health care — and improving economic development opportunities — by recruiting rural doctors, creating residencies and expanding opportunities

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The FSU College of Medicine partnered with Tallahassee Memorial HealthCare to open a new internal medicine residency program in 2012. The program produces up to 10 graduates each year.
courtesy of FSU Photo Services/Bill Lax

Back in the old days, the town doctor was an old sage who practiced out of his home and treated everything under the sun. He knew everything about everyone in town, as well as those living on the nearby farms and homesteads. He could deliver babies, pull teeth and set broken bones. Sometimes he had an idealistic young apprentice tagging along, soaking up his wisdom, learning the trade and building relationships with the people who would come to count on him when the old man retired.

Times may change, but you always return to the classics. As health care changes and the need for doctors increases, Florida State University’s College of Medicine is hoping to provide the small towns of North Florida with modern versions of the classic town doctor.

The first new medical school in the United States in 20 years when it was established by the Florida Legislature in 2000, FSU’s College of Medicine graduated its first class in 2005. Since then, the alumni ranks have swelled to 910. Of that number, 294 have completed their graduate medical work and have entered practice, but 65 percent of alums are still in residency or fellowship programs.

The college’s official mission statement is clearly defined. It says, “The Florida State University College of Medicine will educate and develop exemplary physicians who practice patient-centered health care, discover and advance knowledge, and are responsive to community needs, especially through service to elder, rural, minority and underserved populations.”

Medical school dean Dr. John P. Fogarty talks about that with a touch of pride. It aptly states the case that there is a real need for the college.

“It’s been described as the most focused mission statement for a medical school,” he said. “I think that was on purpose. We didn’t believe that North Florida had enough physicians, and we needed to create the ones they needed. We’ve been holding to that mission. That’s the good news.”

Building new doctors is one thing, but it’s been an uphill battle to keep them in the third-largest state in the nation, where good the availability of health care is a key element in the state’s — and Northwest Florida’s — ability to attract new businesses and bolster economic development. 

Despite a population nearing 20 million, Florida ranks 43rd in the number of available residency slots. Many fledgling doctors go out of state for post-graduate training. Some of them come back home, but Fogarty thinks more could be enticed to stay here.

Fogarty noted in the med school’s 2014 annual report that 55 percent of alumni in practice are caring for patients in Florida.

“The percentage could be much greater if there were more opportunities to retain graduating students in Florida for residency training,” he wrote.

“For the last three years, anywhere from two-thirds to 70 percent have left Florida to go out of state for residencies,” Fogarty said recently. “The good news is they are in spectacular programs throughout the country, many of the best hospitals in the country, which makes us feel really good about the students we produce. The better news is most of them are returning.”

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