Three UAMS Medical Students Awarded Scholarships for Rural Arkansas Primary Care

By Benjamin Waldrum

This year’s recipients are Riley George of Greenwood, a senior, and Lillie Pitts of Jonesboro and Kristen Rice of Texarkana, both juniors. The scholarship has been presented to UAMS College of Medicine juniors or seniors annually since 2012.

Arkansas Blue Cross, the state’s largest health 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, in partnership with the Division of Institutional Advancement, 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.

“We greatly appreciate Arkansas Blue Cross and Blue Shield’s continued investment in our students and our efforts to produce much-needed primary care physicians for rural Arkansas,” said Christopher T. Westfall, M.D., executive vice chancellor of UAMS and dean of the College of Medicine. “Scholarships help reduce the burden of debt for future physicians like Riley, Lillie and Kristen who want to serve in Arkansas communities where they are needed most.”

“Arkansas Blue Cross recognizes that people in rural parts of our state benefit greatly from better access to quality health care,” said Curtis Barnett, Arkansas Blue Cross president and chief executive officer. “That is part of the motivation behind this scholarship. We congratulate Riley, Lillie and Kristen on receiving this award and commend them for their desire to serve rural Arkansans.”

George graduated from Greenwood High School and received his undergraduate degree from Harding University in Searcy. He intends to practice family medicine, preferably near his family in Greenwood and Searcy.

George has shadowed physicians in clinics in Arkansas, Kansas and Zambia. He has a deep interest in primary care and the benefits it can bring to a rural community.

“I have always had a passion for family medicine,” George said. “I have come to love smaller communities and the camaraderie and unity that they can possess. The doctor-patient relationship can be so fulfilling in smaller communities, and the role of the physician in a rural area becomes much broader. Primary care is uniquely positioned to allow for the greatest long-term change in the health of a community through preventive medicine.”

Pitts graduated from Jonesboro High School and received her undergraduate degree from the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville. Much of her family lives in Arkansas, where she grew up in Jonesboro and spent summers in Batesville and Cave City. She intends to pursue a career in internal medicine in Jonesboro or elsewhere in northern Arkansas.

“This state is my home and I am proud of the people that live here,” Pitts said. “Arkansans have helped shape me and are the reason that I wanted to pursue a career in medicine. I want to better the lives of those in my community by giving back in the form of providing quality health care.”

Pitts served as a coordinator for the UAMS MASH (Medical Applications of Science for Health) program in Jonesboro. While shadowing physicians there, she learned about the difficulties faced by many rural Arkansans in obtaining timely medical care.

“Patients would drive over an hour just for one short appointment with primary care physicians,” she said. “These people had health problems that spiraled out of control and drastically affected their quality of life simply because they couldn’t get to a physician in a timely manner. I felt the need to go into medicine because of these patients. They taught me how limiting life can be when you can’t access adequate care.”

Rice graduated from Genoa Central High School and received her undergraduate degree from Texas Christian University in Fort Worth, Texas. She is the only living college graduate in her immediate family. She intends to pursue a career in general pediatrics in southwest Arkansas.

“I greatly desire to work in the rural areas of Arkansas that need physicians the most, specifically southwest Arkansas,” Rice said. “I am very familiar with the primary care physicians there and have had many conversations about how to reach the patients most in need. I look forward to continuing those conversations in the coming years after I move back and start my own practice there, dedicated to serving the less fortunate and often overlooked rural population.”

Rice has extensive experience working at Grace Clinic in Texarkana and the UAMS 12th Street Health & Wellness Center in Little Rock. Her experiences at these clinics have helped solidify her decision to serve patients in greatest need.

“I have seen the firsthand value of providing primary care to the patients that need it the most,” she said. “The best reward for long hours at the clinic is the simple but sincere and genuine ‘thank you’ that comes from patients desperate for a helping hand from someone who cares.”