LAWRENCE — When Harold Ehrlich was growing up on a farm outside Marion, there was only one doctor in the area and he did everything, often for the price of a few chickens and some eggs.
Today, paying with chickens and eggs isn't the norm, but in rural areas, it is often still one doctor who does everything.
Recognizing the important role rural doctors play in small farming communities, Harold and his wife, Fern, recently made a $2 million gift commitment to benefit the Summer Training Option in Rural Medicine (STORM) program at the University of Kansas School of Medicine. STORM places students with volunteer primary care physician preceptors in rural sites across Kansas for seven weeks of active clinical training and research. The gift from the Ehrlichs, who now live in Ocala, Florida, will support the program in perpetuity and provide stipends to program participants. They hope the experience will lead to more students choosing rural primary care medicine after graduation.
The STORM program began in 1992 with two students; now, 30 to 35 students sign up for the elective each year. Since the program began, 762 students have participated, said Michael Kennedy, the McCann Professor for Rural Health and associate dean for rural health education at KU Medical Center. Of those participants, at least 91 are now doctors serving rural areas.
Both students and communities benefit. Students in the STORM program experience all aspects of care: They help deliver babies, scrub into surgeries, care for trauma victims and more. More importantly, they are filling a crucial void: In 2017, a state task force found 161 primary care Health Professional Shortage Areas in Kansas. Of the state’s 105 counties, 92 are considered partially or wholly underserved, according to the Kansas Department of Health and Environment.
Kennedy hopes the STORM program will grow to include more students and serve as a centerpiece for rural training at the KU School of Medicine.
“The Ehrlichs’ contribution will guarantee this extraordinary learning experience for many more aspiring physicians,” he said. “It also will enrich the work lives of rural doctors who find student interaction an extremely rewarding part of their practice.”
Harold and Fern Ehrlich’s personal experiences with rural medicine and its importance inspired the decision to make the gift.
“If I had a billion dollars, anyone living in rural areas would have readily available, prompt and affordable medical services,” Harold Ehrlich said.