Two UAMS Medical Students Awarded Scholarships for Rural Arkansas Primary Care

By Benjamin Waldrum

This year’s recipients are Drake Cullum of Bono, a senior, and Olivia Brasher of North Little Rock, a junior. The scholarship has been presented to UAMS College of Medicine juniors or seniors annually since 2012.

Arkansas Blue Cross, the state’s largest insurer, established the endowed scholarship in 2010 with a $1 million gift to the UAMS Foundation Fund.

The scholarship is part of a broad effort to produce more family medicine, general internal medicine and general pediatrics doctors for Arkansas, especially in rural areas where access to primary care is limited. More than two-thirds of Arkansas’ 75 counties include federally designated Primary Care Health Professional Shortage Areas. Primary care physician shortages are expected to increase substantially as the state’s population continues to age and require more medical care, and as more Arkansans seek primary care services.

The College of Medicine has worked with private partners such as Arkansas Blue Cross to increase scholarships. The high cost of medical school and the burden of educational debt that most medical students face when entering their postgraduate residency training can be a factor in choosing higher-paying specialties instead of primary care and practicing in rural areas. The average medical school debt of recent UAMS graduates who have educational debt is about $195,000.

”Scholarships reduce debt concerns for outstanding students like Drake and Olivia who want to make a difference in rural communities in Arkansas, and allow them to focus on their education and becoming excellent physicians,” said Christopher T. Westfall, M.D., FACS, executive vice chancellor of UAMS and dean of the College of Medicine. “We are very thankful for Arkansas Blue Cross and Blue Shield’s investment in our students and our state.”

”We see the challenges rural Arkansans face with getting needed medical services, and Arkansas Blue Cross is committed to improving access to quality health care throughout our state,” said Curtis Barnett, president and chief executive officer of Arkansas Blue Cross. “This scholarship addresses a small part of that need. We congratulate Drake and Olivia on this year’s award and commend them for their desire to serve rural Arkansans.”

Cullum graduated from Westside High School in Jonesboro and received his undergraduate degree from Arkansas State University in Jonesboro. His family history on both sides dates back several generations in northeast Arkansas. He plans to practice family medicine in one of the counties in either northeast or south Arkansas depending on greatest need.

Since his freshman year, Cullum has been keenly interested in rural primary care, and has consulted with multiple family practice doctors and hospital administrators to better understand recruiting and retention in rural Arkansas as well as the needs of patients there.

“I can’t say I have pinpointed a specific area, but I am willing to go wherever there is a need,” Cullum said. “I love Arkansas, and with my long family ties and wonderful experiences growing up here, I wouldn’t look anywhere else to practice.”

Brasher graduated from North Little Rock High School and received her undergraduate degree from Hendrix College in Conway. Although she has lived in central Arkansas her entire life, she gained experience in family medicine in Helena-West Helena, and is interested in practicing pediatrics in a rural community in Northwest Arkansas.

“In getting to know Helena-West Helena and its people, I witnessed the struggles that community faces, and how much medical care can vary in different areas,” she said. “I learned the tremendous measures that some take to receive proper medical care, and how others that aren’t able to take those measures often suffer for it. After that experience, I became more open to serving in a rural area.”

Brasher’s own experiences as a patient with her family pediatrician inspired her to become a doctor. “I want to create that same familial environment, the one I have yet to find outside of primary care, while providing quality holistic care for my patients,” she said.