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Attracting Doctors To South Dakota

July 7, 2014, 10:00 PM by Erich Schaffhauser

Attracting Doctors To South Dakota
HURON, SD -

Pediatrician Jesse Van Heukelom is almost finished with his first year practicing medicine in Huron, so his medical school days aren't far behind him.

"I think the student loans are always in the back of everybody's mind. Most people come out with about $200,000 of student loans so it's a lot of money," Van Heukelom said.

Van Heukelom has student loans, too. Only, he won’t be paying them.

"For me personally, after five years I'm going to be completely debt free from medical school which is just an amazing thought," Van Heukelom said.

The Willow Lake native is involved in a recruitment program through the Huron Regional Medical Center.

Close to ten years ago, the medical center board members looked ahead and estimated when Huron doctors would be retiring. They knew they'd be recruiting several replacements in coming years, which is tough in rural areas.

"It's incredibly difficult actually and it doesn't matter whether it's a rural area in South Dakota or any other place. You have to have a particular mindset to be willing to live in a community like this," said Dr. Karl Blessinger, Huron Regional Medical Center Board Chair.

Recruiting doctors to rural areas has been enough of a challenge to get the attention of state leaders. The University of South Dakota Sanford School of Medicine is accepting more students and the state is devoting more money to recruitment efforts.

The efforts set in place in Huron during the past decade are producing results.
 
The hospital board worked on plans to build a new clinic, which Blessinger says also works as a recruitment tool.

"As people come into the community, they could see that indeed they wouldn't be practicing in a cave. And number two, we talked about what had been successful as far as recruiting physicians in other areas," Blessinger said.

The resulting plan includes several recruitment measures. Hospital officials sign medical students to work in Huron when they're done with school and residencies. Participants need to practice in the community at least five years.

In exchange, the hospital will pay their student loans. It'll also cover moving costs, help with home purchases and pay students in the program a stipend during their residencies.

"It definitely helps a lot knowing that you have a little bit of a stipend coming in as well as them already starting to pay for some of your loans right off the bat," Van Heukelom said.

Three physicians are currently in Huron after participating in the program, another is coming in October and five more med students are involved.

Blessinger says it's worth the investment.

"You can spend a ton of money recruiting through recruitment agencies, etc. This way we're sort of paying it forward but at the end we get it paid back as they, number one, enhance the community, but number two, keep patients in the hospital and provide services," Blessinger said.

After they’ve served five years, hospital officials are hopeful participants will stay in the community. Van Huekelom says that could be the route his family chooses.

"We could continue to stay here as long as everything's going well and so far we've liked it here in Huron," Van Huekelom said.

He's hoping others join him and share that same experience in rural South Dakota.

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