Meridian doctors: Changing the future of health care

MERIDIAN, Miss. (WTOK) - A crisis is developing in the local health care industry.

"The reality is that over 60 percent of our family practice doctors in this area are over age 60," Dr. Lee Valentine says. "The reality is, within the next 10 years, we're going to have a lot more people retiring or slowing down or whatever. So we're going to have a huge vacuum."

"There's a huge need, and that's one of the big emphasizes of our program is to really hope train physicians to get into those settings," resident Hunter Harrison says.

Dr. Valentine and other doctors created a unique residency program here three years ago to give doctors an opportunity to practice medicine in rural areas. But there's another goal: filling the void when those doctors retire.

"Statistically, 40 to 50 percent of the residents were going to stay within a 60-mile area of their residency program," Dr. Valentine says. "So we decided to take that statistic and build our own nucleus, our own pool of family practice doctors."

Once the doctors commit three years to practicing medicine in the Meridian area, Dr. Valentine says many of them start to feel at home, settling down and getting involved in the community.

"They get involved in church and school and soccer and baseball and other activities, Little Theatre, Riley Center, we could go on and on, so they have an opportunity to really see what we have to offer in this area," Dr. Valentine says.

Harrison - now a third year family medicine resident - is one of the program's success stories. He had no plans of staying in Meridian, but after spending time here, he's changed his mind. and he and his wife now say it feels like home.

"Initially, being from Louisiana, I wasn't 100 percent sure we'd stay here," he says. "But as we've spent more time, and my wife's really grown to love Meridian, we've really seen a lot of growth here. This was something we initially said, oh we'll probably go back home to Louisiana, but we saw a lot of opportunity here in Meridian."

The program continues to grow. Dr. Valentine says he wants it to be the best residency program in the state, so doctors will come and stay right here.