A new program coordinated by the University of Montana aims to reverse the shortage of family practice physicians in the state.

Starting next July, the program will train 10 resident physicians a year at four western Montana health care facilities, the idea being that most of those doctors will stay in Montana – ideally in rural areas –after they complete their residencies.

“We are rapidly approaching a critical juncture in health care” in Montana, said Dr. Ned Vasquez, director of the Family Medicine Residency at the University of Montana.

That’s because the average age of the state’s physicians is increasing and those doctors are retiring, even as the state’s population is aging and in need of more health care, he said. Fifty-four of Montana’s 56 counties are short of primary care doctors – often called general practitioners – and 11 counties have no primary care physician at all, he said.

It gets worse. Montana – with no medical school and only a single medical residency program, in Billings – ranks 50th in the nation for graduate medical education.

The Billings program graduates eight residents a year and 70 percent of those stay in Montana, Vasquez said.

The program announced Friday and accredited earlier this month aims to more than double that number.

Recruiting has already begun for residents in the three-year program who will train at Community Medical Center, Partnership Health Center and St. Patrick Hospital in Missoula, and at Kalispell Regional Medical Center. The residency program enables all of those to be classified as teaching hospitals, said Larry White, UM associate professor and director of the Western Montana Area Health Education Center.

The University of Montana will coordinate the program, making its resources available to the residents, all of whom are required to do research, Vasquez said. That, in turn, makes for a “wonderful collaboration,” as UM undergraduate students in pharmacy, physical therapy, social work and public health interact with the residents, UM President Royce Engstrom said.

About 52 people – including seven full-time faculty, four or five administrative staffers and an additional 10 people who will work in the clinics – will be hired, at an average salary of $70,000, White said.

The program’s annual budget is estimated at $6.8 million a year once it hits the third year, he said.

Its homepage on the UM website is already up and running with its own slogan – “First-Class Medicine in the Last Best Place” – and of course, an urging to like the program on Facebook.

Reporter Gwen Florio can be reached at 523-5268, gwen.florio@missoulian.com or @CopsAndCourts.

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