TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — The University of Alabama College of Community Health Sciences is celebrating 50 years of responding to the acute need in the state for more physicians for the small towns and rural communities that have suffered from a serious lack of health care.
Founded in 1972 by Dr. William R. Willard who served as the college’s first dean, CCHS looked to the specialty of family medicine.
“In many ways, this has been the most difficult of the jobs I’ve had … because we were trying to train a new type of doctor, a family physician,” Willard said in a 1979 interview for “Point in Question,” a UA television production. “But at the same time, I think it may be one of the more rewarding ones because I think we have an opportunity to make a significant impact on an important social problem and that is the health care of the smaller towns and rural areas.”
Since opening its doors five decades ago, CCHS has done just that. The college has educated thousands of medical students and resident physicians, created programs to recruit and mentor rural Alabama high school and college students interested in medicine and who want to practice in their hometowns or similar communities, and added graduate degree programs in population health and community and rural health.
The Tuscaloosa Family Medicine Residency Program has graduated 527 family medicine physicians; more than half of graduates have remained in Alabama to practice, and about half of those practice in rural communities in the state. In fact, one in seven family medicine physicians practicing in Alabama graduated from the residency. CCHS has also developed fellowships through the residency to provide additional training for family physicians in behavioral health, emergency medicine, geriatrics, hospital medicine, obstetrics, pediatrics and sports medicine — the most fellowship offerings of any institution nationwide.
A key CCHS initiative during the 1990s was the creation of a sequence of programs, the Rural Health Leaders Pipeline, to recruit and nurture high school and college students from rural Alabama who wanted to return home, or to other similar communities, to practice medicine. To date, hundreds of students have participated in these programs and many now practice as physicians and other health care providers in rural Alabama communities. The college further committed to rural health and outreach by establishing the Institute for Rural Health Research in 2001.
The college has built a community medical practice, University Medical Center, that is now the largest in West Alabama with locations in Tuscaloosa, Northport, Demopolis, Fayette, Carrollton and Livingston. The college recently formed Capstone Hospitalist Group, whose physicians care for hospitalized patients at DCH Regional Medical Center in Tuscaloosa and Northport Medical Center.
Together with its Capstone Hospitalist Group and as operator of the UA Student Health Center and Pharmacy, the college’s medical practice recorded nearly 250,000 patient visits last year.
“It’s been exciting to watch the college thrive and expand in medical education, patient care and research,” said Dr. Richard Friend, dean of CCHS and a family medicine physician. “Going forward, we are committed to further elevating the distinction of our medical student education and residency, the care of our patients, and the translation of research and discovery to improve the health of Alabama and the Southeast.”
Leslie Zganjar, UA College of Community Health Sciences, firstname.lastname@example.org, 205-348-3079