Meridian Doctors: Part 1

MERIDIAN, Miss. (WTOK) - When you're sick, you count on a trip to the family doctor to make things better. But what happens when that's not an option? Right now, Meridian is in danger of losing those doctors.

"We had such a need for family practice doctors, who, like me, were getting older and getting close to retirement," Dr. Lee Valentine says.

But there's a local effort to bring in more.

"In the past three or four years, we've brought 18 new physicians and their families to the Lauderdale County/Meridian area," Dr. Valentine says.

In 2014, doctors across our region helped create a 3-year residency program in Meridian, including 18 total physicians - so 6 per year. If you've been to a local doctor or hospital, you've probably been seen by one of those residents.

"We're basically licensed physicians," third year resident Hunter Harrison says. "We're able to practice on our own, but we've always got a physician kind of looking over our shoulder, making sure we're making good decisions."

The idea is to get these doctors acclimated to practicing medicine in smaller cities and towns, where their help is most desperately needed.

"It is training family medicine physicians to be comfortable and competent practicing in a rural area," Dr. Valentine says. "Mississippi, by far, is a rural area. Mississippi has a great need for family practice doctors. So that's our mission, that's our goal."

"We get to work both from the clinic here, working at both hospitals, also working with the rural critical access hospitals like in Dekalb and Quitman," Harrison explains. "We've gotten a lot of different opportunities there to kind of see medicine that you might not see in the larger academic centers, too."

It's been a learning process.

"It's so new that we've kind of been able to carve out our own space that we've been able to be active in different roles that I didn't really know were going to be options out there that have been really good opportunities," Harrison says.

The program's director is hoping at the end of the year, even just a few of those doctors participating will want to call Meridian home.

"We don't expect to keep all 18 residents, but if we only kept 6 or 8, (we're) much better off than we would've been if we hadn't had that," Dr. Valentine says.

In part two of this series Thursday, we'll take a look at the importance of this program, why we could see a vacuum of doctors in the next 10 years and what it takes to keep doctors here.