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Arizona programs aim to move med students toward primary care

PHOENIX — Sarah Kellerhals, a second-year medical school student at University of Arizona College of Medicine-Phoenix, says she always knew she wanted to be a primary care doctor rather than specializing in a more lucrative area such as cardiology.

“My parents were in the medical field; my dad was a physician’s assistant and my mom was a nurse, and I just kind of always was interested in medicine,” Kellerhals said.

When both of her parents were diagnosed with cancer within six months of each other while she was a pre-med undergraduate student, it only strengthened her passion for the field, she said.

“I wanted to know more about it, I wanted to learn more about the human body,” Kellerhals said. “I also really enjoyed taking care of them and helping them and I figured that medicine is a great way to continuing caring and helping people.”

Arizona doesn’t have enough primary care physicians to meet the need in many areas, particularly in rural and underserved parts of the state. According to a study by the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation that also considered dentists and mental health professionals, only 53 percent of Arizona’s primary health care needs are being met.

To combat the problem, UA medical students held a Primary Care Week recently, offering speakers and events to promote the speciality of primary health care and address reservations students may have about entering the field.

Kellerhals, who helped organize the event, said primary care isn’t a popular choice among students these days, in large part because of lower salaries versus the high cost of attending medical school.

“Medical school is getting more and more expensive,” Kellerhals said. “I do think that a fear that a lot of medical students have is being able to pay off their loans.”

Ana Roscetti, workforce section manager for the Arizona Department of Health Services, said loan-repayment options through the state and federal governments can make primary care more attractive for medical students.

The National Health Services Corps Loan Repayment Program primary care physicians, dentists and mental health professionals $50,000 in financial assistance annually. In exchange, they must sign a two-year contract with a clinic in an underserved area. Primary care professionals can choose to renew their contracts and receive funding until their student loans are paid in full.

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