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University of Kansas medical students to graduate early and volunteer for program providing aid to Kansans during pandemic

As part of the Kansas Pandemic Volunteer Health Care Workforce, the students will serve in areas of critical need across the state.

image of Kansas town

More than fifty senior students from the University of Kansas School of Medicine have asked to graduate early to participate in the Kansas Pandemic Volunteer Health Care Workforce, a program that will deploy them throughout Kansas as part of the state's response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

This program will allow them to serve in areas of critical need in the state of Kansas immediately, prior to their residencies, which begin July 1 at various locations throughout the country. Students from all three of the medical school's campuses, in Kansas City, Salina and Wichita, have volunteered.

"There is a potential for extreme stress on health care systems in urban and rural settings due to the COVID-19 pandemic," said Mike Kennedy, M.D., professor and associate dean of Rural Health Education in the KU School of Medicine. "Many rural physicians are already overworked, and the addition of a surge in health care utilization could overburden these physicians to the breaking point."

Kennedy noted that there are 34 counties in Kansas that have only one or two physicians for the entire county. There are also many rural practices and health care systems that are under significant financial strain and may be insolvent by the end of the pandemic unless help is provided.

"This all-volunteer program will provide assistance where it's needed in Kansas, including rural Kansas where the need may quickly outpace the available physicians," said Jeff Colyer, M.D., former governor of Kansas, a clinical associate professor at the KU Medical School and chair of the National Advisory Committee on Rural Health and Human Services (NACRHHS). "It could be a national model for how recent medical school graduates can help meet critical rural needs."

"These senior medical students may provide meaningful relief during this time of crisis," Kennedy added.

"We are pleased our students have stepped up to assist their fellow Kansans," said Douglas A. Girod, chancellor of the University of Kansas. "These medical students have met all requirements for graduation at KU, and the university is happy to assist by conferring their degrees early."

Fourth-year medical students who wish to volunteer in this capacity will be immediately granted the degree of Doctor of Medicine from the university and will be eligible for a special permit to practice medicine from the Kansas Board of Healing Arts. Their early graduation has been approved by the national accrediting body, the Liaison Committee on Medical Education.

These new physicians will be provided with stipends for expenses and will receive immediate relevant training. They will be required to work with existing physicians rather than independently, and they will not supervise advanced practice providers. The program will be administered by the Kansas Department of Health and Environment (KDHE).

"The additional manpower provided by these medical students will be invaluable," said Lee Norman, M.D., Secretary of the Kansas Department of Health and Environment (KDHE), Kansas state surgeon and a colonel in the Kansas Army National Guard. "The state of Kansas supports this endeavor and, as an Army officer myself, I am pleased to activate the Kansas National Guard to provide the personnel to assist in placing these students where they can be most helpful to our state."

John Alley, M.D., an assistant professor of surgery at the KU School of Medicine and a major with the Kansas National Guard, will oversee the day-to-day operation of the program.

"With this program, we are making valuable resources available to our colleagues around the state," Alley said. "These students are to be commended for their willingness to serve. They truly embody the spirit of medicine in giving of oneself for the greater good."

The program will be funded by a $1 million gift from the Patterson Family Foundation in Kansas City, Mo. Originally established by late Cerner Corporation co-founder Neal Patterson and Jeanne Lillig-Patterson in 2007, the Patterson Family Foundation has been led since 2017 by their children, and it has a focus on health care, education and rural communities. 

"The COVID-19 pandemic could have devastating effects on the region we call home, challenging the most vulnerable among us," said Lindsey Patterson Smith, director of the Patterson Family Foundation. "In Kansas, more than 30 percent of elderly people live in rural areas, and many rural physicians are themselves at high risk. The Patterson family is inspired by the volunteerism of the new graduates who have signed up for this initiative, and we are honored to support these new physicians as they serve where they are needed most." 

Health care facilities and physicians in need of assistance from this program should contact to inquire about requesting volunteers from this program.

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