Pioneer of Rural Track Residency Passionate About Improving Health Care Access in Rural Communities

Growing up in rural Middle Tennessee, Thomas Atkins, MD saw firsthand the need for increased access to health care outside of cities and metropolitan areas.

“People in my community would have to make a choice between quitting work and driving all the way to Nashville to take care of something, or just putting up with being sick so they don’t lose the paycheck,” he said .

dr Thomas Atkins is shown with his wife and daughter at his graduation.

dr Atkins, a 2022 graduate of UTHSC, is the first rural college resident of the College of Medicine – Nashville’s family medicine program. The pilot program is a federally funded effort to address rural physician shortages and underscores UTHSC’s commitment to improving the health of all people throughout the state of Tennessee.

The three-year residency at Ascension Saint Thomas River Park in McMinnville and Ascension Saint Thomas Rutherford in Murfreesboro will be Dr. Train Atkins not only how to practice medicine in a hospital setting, but also how to manage the problems of rural communities, where patients are typically underserved.

“As a rural utility, you have to know a lot about a lot,” said Dr. Atkins. “You may be the only doctor within a 50-100 mile radius so you have to be prepared for whatever comes through the door and you have to be able to rely on a lot of things.”

The lack of access to quality health care in rural communities is why Dr. Atkins wanted to study medicine. When he left his hometown of Pleasant View, he always intended to return to a rural community, if not the one where he grew up. He received his bachelor’s degree from Vanderbilt University — about 30 miles from Pleasant View — and knew he wanted to stay in Tennessee for med school as well.

“I feel a real connection to the state, and after interviewing all medical schools, I felt the deepest connection to UTHSC. The faculty there seemed great and willing to work with me toward my goals,” said Dr. Atkins. “When I got there, I really liked the inclusive environment and the opportunities that the school offered. The students were hardworking and very willing to help other students and it felt like everyone was on the same team.”

When Craig Glass, MD, Associate Director of the Family Medicine Program, found out about the new residency by land, Dr. Atkins boarded almost immediately. After graduating, he, his wife, and their young daughter moved to Middle Tennessee, not far from his hometown and family, where Dr. Atkins is now pioneering rural education.

Dr. Thomas Atkins

In the years to come, Dr. Atkins will be exposed to the inequalities that rural communities face in accessing quality health care due to economic factors, lack of education, geographic isolation, and other causes. One of the problems that Dr. Atkins is interested in the lack of screening options for preventable diseases.

“If you only have a handful of providers in an area and people have to choose between a paycheck and seeing the provider, they may miss their screenings for preventable things like complications from high blood pressure or COPD or cancer screenings. There is a higher incidence of such in rural and underserved populations,” said Dr. Atkins. “People in these underserved communities also often have less access to their medications and refills because there aren’t enough providers in the area, so you often see poorly or undertreated diabetes and hypertension and related things.”

according to dr Atkins, it takes a certain type of person to want to practice medicine in a rural community, and that’s a big reason there is a shortage of rural doctors. He said many doctors don’t want to leave the comfort of a big city, where there are usually more opportunities for advancement in hospitals and private practices. Also, being the sole provider in a relatively large area can be daunting, but it is a challenge that Dr. Atkins likes to pose.

After completing his residency training, Dr. Atkins to practice in rural Tennessee. In addition to treating underserved patients, he also wants to get involved in health policy to help shape how government and legislators deal with health issues. “I want to do everything in my power to alleviate the shortage of doctors that we have in Tennessee outside of the major metropolitan areas,” he said.

Until he becomes part of the solution to this problem, Dr. Atkins said he wanted to reassure people in rural communities that the landscape is changing, adding that more and more doctors are getting excited about bringing healthcare to these underserved populations. He also hopes more medical students will consider practicing in rural areas because of the impact they can have on a community.

“From my point of view, rural medicine is amazing. You can do so much good to so many people. You can be a pillar of this community that people can look to and rely on, and I think that brings a lot of fulfillment,” he said.

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