The Wythe-Bland Foundation has given a $315,000 grant to a Blacksburg medical school as a way to recruit much-needed family doctors to its rural Appalachian counties.

The foundation’s gift is to be used to recruit three graduates of the Edward Via College of Osteopathic Medicine who are finishing their residencies or fellowships to practice in Wythe and Bland counties.

Travis Jackson, executive director, said the foundation did a community needs assessment in 2017 and learned the area had seven fewer primary-care providers than it should have had.

“So we looked at ways of having more family practice physicians in our area. Because VCOM is one of those institutions that markets itself to rural Appalachia, we thought it would be a good opportunity for scholarships,” he said.

The scholarships will be paid to the doctors in annual installments following each of the first three years that they practice in Wythe or Bland county.

“That way, VCOM isn’t having to chase someone down if they default,” he said.

About 28,650 people live in Wythe County and another 6,400 in Bland County, according to population estimates by the University of Virginia’s Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service.

For that number of people, the area should have more than 24 primary-care providers, he said.

“We had 18, and that included nurse practitioners,” he said.

The foundation was created in 2005 when the community decided to lease its hospital to LifePoint Health. Jackson said the foundation began with $50 million and spends 5% a year, much of it on scholarships and on expanding access to medical and dental care.

Every student graduating high school in either of the two counties can attend Wytheville Community College at no cost.

This is the second foundation this year to announce a large grant to VCOM that is intended to make practicing in Virginia’s coalfields more affordable.

The United Company Foundation of Bristol gave a $1 million challenge grant, with funds to be used to lower medical school debt for doctors.

The grant pays down the cost of attending VCOM, which is between $75,000 and $80,000 a year. In exchange, students will agree to practice in Southwest Virginia.

The Virginia Tobacco Region Revitalization Commission is also expected this week to revise its scholarship and loan programs to make rural areas more attractive to health care workers.

VCOM has graduated more than 2,200 physicians since 2007 from its Blacksburg campus. About 40% are practicing in rural or medically underserved areas of Virginia.

The Wythe-Bland grant also will require the physicians to teach VCOM students and participate in the school’s community outreach programs.

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Luanne Rife writes about the businesses, policies, discoveries and inventions that affect the health of people living in southwestern Virginia.

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