BROOKINGS There is a shortage of doctors in rural America.

Kaihlen Smith aims to do something about that.

The 2017 Mitchell High School graduate was recently accepted into the Sanford School of Medicine, where she will further pursue her studies to become a doctor. She hopes that goal will help ease the shortage of rural doctors in South Dakota.

“My main goal is to end up in a rural area,” Smith, a soon-to-be South Dakota State University graduate now bound for the Sanford School of medicine at the University of South Dakota in Vermillion, told the Mitchell Republic in a recent interview.

Growing up in Mitchell, Smith said she enjoyed the character of the town and the supportive nature of the residents as she made her way through her early education in the Mitchell School District. She took part in many activities while she began to focus her attention on her plans for after high school.

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“I loved growing up in Mitchell. I feel like the people in the community are always supportive and are always willing to help,” Smith said.

She played ice hockey and tennis and took part in a number of academic clubs during her tenure at MHS, but she eventually began to gravitate toward the sciences, even though she did not fully grasp what career path she would take.

She eventually took an advanced biology class with MHS science teacher Julie Olson, and she was suddenly set on a path that would take her on a journey with the aim to help people in need.

“If I hadn’t taken that I wouldn’t have pursued a biology degree. I didn’t know how in-depth that field could be,” Smith said.

After graduation from Mitchell High School, Smith enrolled at SDSU in search of a human biology degree while on a track to study pre-optometry, inspired by a brother who had entered the field. But a family situation arose that would reset her academic journey and see her pursue medical school.

“My first year of college, someone in my family got sick. And through that experience into the health care field, I realized how important it is to have good physicians who care about their patients,” Smith said. “It sparked my interest in medicine, and I started shadowing some doctors and getting to know them and how they went through their journey in South Dakota, especially in rural areas.”

The shortage of doctors in rural areas of the United States is a real problem. According to a study conducted by the Association of American Medical Colleges, the United States physician shortage is estimated to reach 120,000 by 2032.

“The scarcity of practicing physicians in rural America is a major obstacle to providing necessary and timely care. The fact is exacerbated by the disproportionately high healthcare needs faced by rural Americans compared with their urban counterparts. Rural residents report higher rates of chronic illness, maternal morbidity, infant mortality and lower rates of life expectancy,” the report reads.

And the doctor shortage is widespread in rural South Dakota. A map created by the South Dakota Department of Health shows that ready access to primary care physicians is available only to residents along the Interstate 90 corridor, a few areas in the central Missouri River region and around the Black Hills in the west. Most other areas of the state are considered to be in a shortage of access to primary medical care.

“Not everyone has a chance to get great health care in South Dakota in some areas,” Smith said.

A lot of study in the classroom and a lot of support outside it have helped Smith come within reach of her goals. She has excelled in her studies, but admits she faced a challenge in absorbing the knowledge, fulfilling her classroom obligations and then setting out to apply for the only medical school in South Dakota.

“Everyone tells you how scary medical school is. I really had to look inside to see what my passion was, and what is my why?” Smith said. “It may be difficult, but it will be worth it in the end.”

She has had several mentors along the way, including local physicians Martin Christensen and Lucio Margallo, and Betsy Van Genderen and Julie Brookbank, among others, who have helped her reach her goal of attending the Sanford School of Medicine.

With the COVID-19 pandemic taking center stage in the world for most of the past year, Smith said she saw even more acutely how quality medical care can affect a population, especially in rural areas.

“I took the admission test (for medical school) and studied for seven months. It was a lot,” Smith said. “That’s when COVID-19 hit. I always knew that health care workers were very amazing people, but after COVID-19 they are health care heroes. They go to work every day not knowing what they are going to see or do. They sacrifice a lot for their jobs, and I think that’s truly incredible.”

Now she is in the planning stages to bring that important work to underserved portions of the state. Her goal is to remain in South Dakota if possible and help bolster that medical presence in places where it can be hard to come by. At least one program, the FARM program, should help her shore up her skills before entering her career.

“That’s my main goal, to end up in a rural area, specifically in South Dakota and stay near family,” Smith said. “(The Sanford School of Medicine has) a program called FARM - Frontier and Rural Medicine - where you actually, instead of doing an internship in Rapid City or Sioux Falls, you go to (places like) Parkston or Miller so you can get a feel of what rural medicine is like. That’s one of the reasons I’m drawn to USD - they want you to be serious about it.”

The next stage of her journey begins in July, when she’ll begin classes in Vermillion. It’s been a rewarding experience so far, and she expects it will only become even more satisfying as she gets closer to rolling up her sleeves and helping rural residents remain healthy.

“I’d like to help as many people as possible,” Smith said.