Courtney Vandermeersch sees the light at the end of tunnel as she nears completion of an arduous four years of study that will prepare her for an impactful role serving in a rural South Carolina community.
Vandermeersch is reaching the finish line to a Doctor of Medicine degree from the University of South Carolina School of Medicine Columbia. She and her classmates are awaiting Match Day on March 19 to learn where they will spend the next four years in residency training.
A student at the School of Medicine’s Florence Regional Campus, Vandermeersch will be the first to graduate as a recipient of the South Carolina Center for Rural and Primary Healthcare’s Rural Practice Loan Forgiveness Program. The program was developed to help supplement the health care workforce in South Carolina, especially in rural, underserved areas.
“I’m originally from Knoxville, Tennessee, and was looking for an opportunity to work in a setting that served more underprivileged patients,” she says. “It was my chance to give back to a smaller community and gain more hands-on experience.”
The American Association of Medical Colleges projects a physician shortfall of between 40,800 and 104,900 physicians nationwide by 2030. In South Carolina, 45 of 46 counties currently have designated Health Professional Shortage Areas.
Kevin Bennett, director of the South Carolina Center for Rural and Primary Healthcare, says the program can help increase the number of health care providers in underserved areas.
“Rural areas across the state continue to need additional health care providers, particularly for obstetrics care,” he says, “and this loan forgiveness program is a beneficial method to help both the community and the provider alike.”
The program, which is open to South Carolina students in Doctor of Medicine, Physician Assistant and Advanced Practice Registered Nurse programs, provides students with a loan award of up to $150,000 in direct educational costs such as tuition and other fees during the course of the four-year educational program.
Once they have completed residency, recipients agree to practice in a designated rural area of the state for a minimum of four years in primary care areas such as family medicine, internal medicine and pediatrics or in a critical need specialty, including obstetrics and gynecology, psychiatry and general surgery. The loan is forgiven when the recipient has met the requirements of the program.
For Vandermeersch, her interest in medicine grew from a love of science.
“I will be the first doctor in my family,” she says. “I had a few medical issues growing up and found through my studies and my doctor visits that I was drawn to medicine.”
Like her classmates, Vandermeersch is looking forward to Match Day to learn where she will further her training. She hopes to match to a residency in obstetrics and gynecology and has worked throughout her training toward that goal.
She pursued a summer initiative at Wake Forest School of Medicine in the maternal-fetal medicine program, and she developed a curriculum for self-guided development of ultrasound competency. She also helped a low-cost, high-fidelity obstetrics simulator to increase training opportunities, and she has submitted two papers that are pending for the Journal of Ultrasound in Obstetrics and Gynecology.
“I originally thought I might pursue pediatrics, but I have now chosen to go into obstetrics and gynecology,” she says. “It offers everything that I enjoy — the opportunity to do surgery but to still have a strong presence in primary care. I feel that I can build a rapport with my patients.”
“I’m looking for a family environment because I always thrived in that,” she adds. “For me, it helps foster a good environment for learning and what I want to portray in a future practice.”
Vandermeersch chose to attend the Florence Regional Campus because of a desire to train in a more rural area, and she hopes to eventually return to Florence after residency. She is grateful to participate in the Rural Practice Loan Forgiveness Program for multiple reasons.
“The cost of schooling is so significant,” she says, “and to have that financial burden lifted means so much. The chance to graduate with less debt and come back to serve in an underserved area made sense to me.”