Here’s how you get to Ashland, Kansas: drive south out of Kansas City for 178 miles, take a right at Wichita. Go another 117 miles straight west, take a left onto a two-lane highway at the crossroads of four pieces of cropland. Go another 55 miles and you can’t miss it: the water tower with “Ashland” painted across its broad front is like a pop-up pin planted on this flat plain.
For the geographically challenged (that includes me), Ashland, population 855, is in southwest Kansas, near the Oklahoma border.
I drove down here Monday, and after my left and right turns, respectively, I covered 352 miles over five hours, thanks to my lead foot and a natural ability to dodge the state troopers. I’m here to do an interesting story about a chronic problem – the difficulty in finding doctors to live and serve in remote areas to serve a dwindling population.
I’m from a small town and I get it. It’s hard to lure young doctors out here in hopes that they serve vast areas of prairie populated by just a few people, at least according to the standards set on the coasts. Will young men and women fresh from med school be attracted to the low home prices, good schools and friendly people?
Most often, they are not.
So I was surprised when I learned about Benjamin Anderson and his work at Ashland Health Center. I was doing outreach for my Harvest Network last fall at the National Rural Health Association meeting in Kansas City. Lindsey Corey, an NRHA staffer, told me that I had to meet Benjamin and learn about what he’s doing. So I attended a seminar he held at the conference.
Most recruiters lure doctors to their towns with big promises and cushy perks. A large affordable home, a big six-figure salary, maybe a flashy car. Not Anderson, Ashland Health Center’s CEO.
He convinced the hospital’s board to create a physician recruitment package that includes eight weeks paid time off for mission work – volunteering in Haiti or Zimbabwe or where ever someone needs medical help.
“A family that is willing to live in a mud hut in Africa is also willing to live in remote America,” he said. “They get into this to serve. They don’t get into this for a cush lifestyle.”
It worked. Last summer, Anderson wooed Dr. Dan Shuman and his family from Austin, Texas. Shuman is a military doc who did a year in Iraq and has worked as a missionary in Mexico and Haiti. I got to hang out with the doc yesterday while he met with patients, who are grateful they still have a doctor in a town that has no gas station, no Starbucks and just one grocery store.
Maybe Anderson is skilled at the anti-sell because he went for it himself. Anderson was working as a physician recruiter in Dallas when he was recruited to Ashland. He was told by town leaders that if the hospital closes, the school will close, the stores will close, the town would close. That appealed to him.
“My wife and I have always felt called to find a job that matters,” Anderson said. “I got my world rocked when I got to small town Kansas.”
I’ll have the story for Harvest Public Media next week. But in the meantime, you’re going to hear more about Ashland’s unique doctor recruitment. Anderson is traveling to Topeka today to be a guest of Gov. Sam Brownback during his State of the State address. That will be broadcast live tonight at 6:30 p.m. on our partner stations Kansas Public Radio and KCUR.
Anderson isn’t the only one out in rural Kansas working at getting better services for its residents. My colleague Bryan Thompson of Kansas Public Radio has written about a woman near the Colorado border who is also gaining traction on this issue. But she and Anderson are the exception to the rule.
Tell us what you think. Does your small town have a full-time doctor? Do you live in a rural area and have suffered because of a shortage of providers? Or do you now live in an urban area and are grateful for the better offering of health care. Tell your story to the Harvest Network.
I'm headed back to Kansas City today. I'll just double back, taking a right, then a left at Wichita, and in five hours, I'll be home. But let's keep that between us, OK? I don't want the state troopers finding me.