By Ellen Goldbaum
Published April 24, 2023
BUFFALO, N.Y. – Even before the pandemic, the nationwide physician shortage was looming; now, it’s even more pronounced.
That shortage is why the University at Buffalo moved its Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences downtown in 2017 in order to train 25% more physicians, increasing the size of every class from 140 to 180 physicians.
It’s also why local physicians and community leaders have made addressing this problem their top priority.
Since 2012, the Western New York Medical Scholarship Fund, an independent, grassroots, community organization, has been providing scholarships to Western New York students who attend the Jacobs School and then pledge to stay and practice medicine here after completing their training.
“This initiative was inspired by our local physicians and local business leaders who recognized the need to keep more of our best and brightest medical students in Western New York after they graduate,” said Allison Brashear, MD, MBA, UB’s vice president for health sciences and dean of the Jacobs School. “The Jacobs School is incredibly fortunate that our alumni and community leaders have been so committed to this important effort.”
John Bodkin, MD, a Jacobs School alumnus who was president of Highgate Medical and a family medicine physician with the practice for 40 years, has led the charge.
“We are a group of independent physicians and community and business leaders, and we have seen the shortage of physicians in Western New York firsthand,” he said. “Our goal is simple: We want the doctors we train here to spend their careers here. We are giving them the incentive to do that. Our motto has been: ‘Live here, train here and remain here.’”
The scholarships are responding to a key factor driving physician shortages: Surveys of medical students indicate that the debt students take on to go to medical school drives medical school selection and the subsequent area of specialty.
In addition, an aging population of doctors and higher salaries in bigger cities are also contributing to shortages in places like Buffalo.
The Association of American Medical Colleges estimates a national shortage of up to 124,000 physicians nationally by 2034; it’s estimated that over half of those may be primary care physicians. And over the past 10 years, statewide estimates have put Western New York among the regions in the state with some of the lowest numbers of physicians per 100,000 people.
Since it first started receiving donations in 2012, the scholarship fund has raised more than $4 million from private donors, local hospitals and insurance companies and other businesses. So far, it has distributed scholarships to 31 Jacobs School students. Over the years, its mission has evolved from striving to keep more Jacobs School graduates local, regardless of their specialty, to emphasizing specialties, such as primary care, where the local need is particularly acute.
Last month, the fund awarded two scholarships to Meghan Cloutier and Tanya Verma, both of whom will graduate with their MD degrees next week. Both are graduates from Niagara Wheatfield High School and both will be training in primary care.
“This scholarship allows me to pursue my passion of primary care and relieves some of the stress of worrying about such a large amount of student debt to pay in the future,” said Verma. “I am proud to be here and serve my community while having such a strong support system including my family, friends and mentors behind me.”
Brashear added: “By choosing to remain in Western New York, our scholarship awardees like Meghan and Tanya are helping to improve access to health care and to reduce gaps in the care delivery continuum.”
Recently, representatives of the scholarship fund gave a presentation to the Buffalo Common Council, describing the physician shortage and how it affects, in particular, the city’s underserved areas. Its latest initiative is raising money for scholarships that support medical students underrepresented in medicine who commit to working in underserved areas in the region.
“We are focused on educating local leaders and their constituents about this issue,” said Bodkin. “We want Western New York students who are underrepresented in medicine to know that if they are interested in medicine, they can become doctors, they can train at the Jacobs School and spend their careers right here in Buffalo, caring for their own communities. And we want to help them get there.”
Improving the number of underrepresented physicians locally is also a priority of the Jacobs School, which last year established the Jonathan D. Daniels MD ’98 & Family Memorial Scholarship.
With mental health needs spiking nationally, especially since the pandemic, psychiatrists are another specialty in short supply. Working with the scholarship fund, the Patrick P. Lee Foundation has raised nearly $1 million to fund additional scholarships for Jacobs School graduates training to be psychiatrists who pledge to stay in Western New York.
To be eligible for these scholarships, students who apply must meet highly select criteria: They must have graduated from a high school within the eight counties of Western New York, excel academically and have a demonstrated financial need.
In order to accept the scholarship, they also must pledge to stay in Western New York to practice for five years after they finish their training. The goal of the scholarships is to fund a majority of the student’s medical school tuition.
To donate to the WNY Medical Scholarship Fund, go to https://ubfoundation.buffalo.edu/giving/index.php?gift_allocation=01-1-1-07168