Sheleatha Taylor-Bristow doesn’t mince words about the impact of the Oklahoma Medical Loan Repayment program for physicians to practice in medically underserved areas of the state.
Taylor-Bristow, a primary care physician at Community Health Centers’ Mary Mahoney Memorial Health Center in Spencer, said without the program, “I wouldn’t be able to stay here.”
The loan repayment program makes it possible for rural communities to attract doctors who might otherwise pass up the small town for big city positions, or select a more lucrative practice setting to pay off their student loans quicker, she said.
During her residency, Taylor-Bristow learned about Mary Mahoney Memorial Health Center, which is a community-based health care provider that receives funding from the Health Resources and Services Administration to provide services in underserved areas. Originally from Oklahoma City but with family ties to the Spencer area, Taylor-Bristow was intrigued by the opportunity to provide care for people who were vulnerable to financial shocks and poverty. The patients, because of difficulty accessing quality healthcare, come to the clinic seeking treatment for a wide range of diseases at all stages, which fascinated the young doctor.
Signing up to serve the public meant earning an income lower than private practice, which worried Taylor-Bristow, who comes from a disadvantaged background and looked to student loans for accessing higher education and ultimately medical school. After listening to a speaker from the Oklahoma Academy of Family Physicians present on the state’s medical loan program funded by the Oklahoma Tobacco Settlement Endowment Trust (TSET), Taylor-Bristow had found a way to serve those in great need, while also helping to reduce her debt load.
“You are able to have your student loan debt reduced while practicing in a setting where you are able to help the underserved, which is desperately needed in Oklahoma,” Taylor-Bristow said. “In Oklahoma, we need to increase the number of physicians, not just providers. That’s the buzzword. Providers. We need physicians. In these underserved medical areas, physicians get the education, the training and the experience they need.”
Loan repayment program
According to the Oklahoma Department of Health, only one of Oklahoma’s 77 counties, Kingfisher, is not designated as a Primary Care Health Professional Shortage Area. While a majority of Oklahoma County is not classified as a health professional shortage area, outside the cities and the populated suburbs there are fewer clinics. For rural residents, particularly those with lower incomes, transportation to medical appointments can be a barrier.
In 2012, TSET and the Physician Manpower Training Commission launched The Oklahoma Medical Loan Repayment program to connect primary care physicians with patients in rural and underserved areas, which are designated as having too few primary care providers. The program requires physicians to treat SoonerCare patients, or those enrolled in the state’s Medicaid program, and to refer tobacco users to the Oklahoma Tobacco Helpline for free cessation coaching.
TSET, where the settlement money from tobacco producers was put in the early 2000s, is committed to improving the health and quality of life for all Oklahomans. TSET grant funds serve as the state match for the program, which received federal health care dollars through the Oklahoma Health Care Authority.
Participating physicians must serve in a medically underserved area for a minimum of two years. Physicians are eligible for student loan repayments up to four years and can reach a total of $160,000, so long as the physician continues to practice in the rural community.
“The program creates a partnership in rural and underserved areas that help to increase access to health care and address Oklahoma’s shortage of doctors,” said John Woods, TSET executive director, in a press statement. “Increasing access to primary care and preventative services will help Oklahoma make healthy choices and live longer healthier lives.”
According to TSET, more than 112,000 patient visits have been conducted by physicians participating in the program. More than 1,250 patients have been referred to the Oklahoma Tobacco Helpline.
After completing her residency requirement, Taylor-Bristow arrived at Mary Mahoney practice family medicine in July 2013. There, Taylor-Bristow treats patients of all ages but specializes in prenatal care and women’s health. Her patients range in age from newborns to elderly women.
“I absolutely love what I do,” Taylor-Bristow said while seated inside Mary Mahoney, 12716 NE 36th St. “I love the relationships I have with patients. … I’ve established long-term relationships with my patients. I get to see kids grow up, thrive and succeed. I helped shape and mold them as their physician. There is an opportunity to have a positive influence and impact.”
Taylor-Bristow explained beyond her patients, she likes the work at Mary Mahoney, which is an all-encompassing health center offering comprehensive primary health, oral health, mental health, and pharmacy services to clients. Additionally, local nonprofits work closely with the clinic to provide other services to clients. Infant Crisis Services’ BabyMobile makes visits to meet with young parents and young toddlers for formula, diapers and food. Legal Aid Services of Oklahoma and a local attorney set up a medical-legal clinic once-a-month on Saturdays.
“You get to focus on all determinants of health,” Taylor-Bristow said. “I can pick up the phone and call one of our behavioral health specialists, who can give a patient treatment immediately or at least set up an appointment for later that day. It is beneficial for the patient, but also for their overall health.”
Last summer, Taylor-Bristow completed the loan repayment program through TSET, becoming one of the first physicians to do so. In July, Taylor-Bristow will reach six years of service at Mary Mahoney. She plans to continue treating patients at Mary Mahoney.
“The program is beneficial not just for the physicians with the loan repayment, but for the entire community with a focus on improving the health of Oklahomans, but especially those that are underserved,” Taylor-Bristow said.
Print headline: Meeting needs; In Oklahoma County, TSET funds work to place physicians in medically undeserved communities like Spencer