LITTLE ROCK, Ark – Wait times in doctors’ offices could be getting longer as the state continues to see a shortage of physicians.

The University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences says the shortage has been a problem for years. The hospital now trying to correct it before it gets worse by offering a fast-track program for medical students.

The program would primarily be held on the hospital’s Northwest campus. It would shorten the medical school program from 4 years to 3 years.

UAMS says its hope is students come out of the program with less debt and will be more inclined to take jobs in rural areas.

“If you owe more you typically tend to look for areas of medicine that will compensate you more,” said UAMS Executive Vice Chancellor and Dean of the College of Medicine Susan Smyth.

Smyth says taking away a year in the classroom will save students about $60,000. She says the program will also be designed to encourage jobs in rural healthcare.

“We know that the earlier exposure you get the more likely you are to choose that as a career path,” Smyth said.

Smyth says two-thirds of counties in Arkansas are considered ‘medically underserved’ which means there are not enough doctors to care for the population in a specific area.

White River Medical Center in Batesville is considered one of those counties.

White River Medical Center CEO Gary Paxson says on average the hospital gets five-seven new physicians each year, which he says is much lower than a major city.

“If you look at statistics less than 3 percent of doctors coming out of training want to live in a rural area,” Paxson said. “It’s a constant challenge.”

Paxson says he hopes UAMS’ program will help bring more physicians in.

UAMS says COVID-19 played a role in the shortage of physicians with burnout.

They also say it’s important to take care of the shortage now, noting more and more physicians will start to retire in the coming years.

They say that coupled with a growing elderly population could create a problem with more needed care and few to provide it.

The next session of the fast-track program begins this summer.