NHSC offers scholarships for doctors willing to practice in underserved areas

by Christina Hodel

For rural or urban neighborhoods struggling for adequate healthcare and for primary care doctors struggling to repay loans, the National Health Services Corp (NHSC) is one solution.

NHSC is a network of 7,500 primary health care professionals working in underserved communities across the country at about 10,000 sites as of September 30, 2010.

According to its website, the government-funded NHSC encourages primary care physicians to practice in underserved, low income and/or rural areas.

NHSC has two options for those who are willing to practice in underserved areas.
The first is the medical scholars program. This competitive program provides scholarships to entering medical students who have already committed to a career in primary care.

NHSC will fund a student’s medical school education as long as the student promises to follow through with practicing in an underserved area after residency. The underserved area is selected by NHSC and scholars must practice for at least the equivalent amount of years they received funding for.

If NHSC members choose to not follow through with their commitment, they will face financial penalties, often times at least twice the amount of the original scholarship.

The National Health Service Corps scholarship pays tuition, required fees and some other education costs, tax free, for as many as four years. Education costs may include books, clinical supplies, laboratory expenses, instruments, two sets of uniforms and travel for one clinical rotation. Recipients also receive a monthly living stipend ($1,289 in 2010-2011). The stipend is taxable.

“People get penalized for not going ahead with the agreement so if you aren’t sure if you want to do this, then I suggest you don’t apply,” said Evelin Martinez, who graduated from the USC Physician Assistant Program in 2006 and joined NHSC in 2009 after she met a current NHSC member.

The second program is the standard National Health Services Corps program. Once a prospective NHSC member secures a job at an approved location, in addition to receiving pay comparable to non NHSC doctors, those who have completed medical school and residency can then apply to be in the program.

Accepted applicants receive up to $60,000 towards student loans for each year of service capping at about $170,000 in loan repayment.

“This program is very helpful” said Martinez. “I received $50,000 right away. There was tons of paperwork…but it’s worth it.”

According to Dr. Felix Aguilar, an Ambassador of NHSC and Medical Director of the South Central Family Health Center in Los Angeles, “a combination of a lot of things” attracted him to the program.

“Loan repayment is enticing, but it’s really about working with the underserved,” Aguilar said.

Admission into the program is competitive due to lack of funding so Aguilar recommends securing a job at an approved site which can be found on-line at the program’s official website: nhsc.hrsa.gov.

Sites are scored depending on the need for a physician.

“Willingness to work at a site that scores very high on need gives applicants an edge,” Aguilar said.

By connecting health care providers to communities with little to no access to primary health care, NHSC not only helps our neighborhoods, but frees medical students to take a career path that may be less lucrative, but more satisfying, Aguilar said.

Said Martinez: “A lot of people are scared to work in a place like South Central…I grew up here so to work here is very important to me…and having a program like NHSC is a good thing.”

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