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Recently (Jan. 10) there was guest column in the Missoulian explaining the vital role and impact of physicians on Montana’s economy. In addition, it was reported that the distribution of Montana physicians is extremely uneven, with 71 percent of all physicians practicing in only five counties. In terms of primary care, it also was reported that nine counties do not have a physician and 13 counties lack a primary care physician.

This is very serious issue for Montana’s rural population, however, the problem is being addressed by Montana’s two Family Medicine Residency Programs, one located in Billings and one at the University of Montana in Missoula. UM’s partners in this important program are the two Missoula hospitals and Partnership Health Center; Kalispell Regional Medical Center and Flathead Community Health Center; and 10 Montana rural training sites.

At UM, the residency program, known as the Family Residency Program of Western Montana (FMRWM), accepts 10 physicians per year. Such residency programs are necessary, in addition to the further training provided, because physicians have a tendency to practice in the general area where they have completed a residency program.

To be specific, the FMRWM Program is a relatively new program, with two graduating classes (2016 and 2017), and with a third class graduating this coming summer. Overall, of the first 18 graduates, 16 are practicing in rural or underserved areas, and 11 of the 18 are practicing in Montana.

A number of the graduating class of 2018 have not yet finalized where they will practice but it is possible that 10 soon-to-be graduates (11 are in this class) will select practice positions in Montana (two physicians have accepted positions in Lewistown).

The paucity of primary care physicians in rural areas is not a new problem and it will take a good deal of time to make a significant impact on the problem. However, this issue is being addressed by UM and its partners, and the FMRWM Program’s graduates, over their careers as primary care physicians, will result in better health care in Montana’s rural areas.

David Forbes is dean emeritus of the University of Montana College of Health Professions and Biomedical Sciences.

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