Dr. Tammy Tandberg-Willcox knew she’d be a long way from home when she chose to do her residency program in the town of Talihina in southeastern Oklahoma.
“It’s the smallest place I’ve ever lived,” says Tandberg-Wilcox, who grew up in Wisconsin. Talihina’s population dipped below 1,000 in 2019, and the closest Wal-Mart is a 45-minute drive.
That was the point when she chose the Choctaw Nation Family Medicine Residency Program. “I liked the idea of working in rural medicine and getting a different experience,” Tandberg-Willcox says. “It’s a very small, hands-on program.”
Once she completed the program, Tandberg-Willcox liked practicing rural medicine enough to stay. She moved to Hugo, another small town about 10 miles north of the Texas-Oklahoma state line, to practice at the Choctaw Nation Hugo Health Clinic.
Choctaw Nation Health Services Authority serves the area of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, and the clinic in Hugo is one of the system’s eight clinics, in addition to the hospital in Talihina.
“A lot of people haven’t been to the doctor in a long time,” she says of the patients she now cares for. “There are a lot of people who haven’t had health care or access to it.” She’s helping many learn for the first time how to manage their diabetes, high blood pressure, kidney disease and other chronic conditions.
That may be in part because Hugo is in Choctaw County, which Oklahoma has designated as a primary care health professional shortage area. That means locals likely have trouble accessing care close to home because there are simply no doctors practicing nearby.
“Residents often have to travel for at least an hour to get to the closest hospital and family physician,” says Janie Thompson, executive director of the Oklahoma Physician Manpower Training Commission. “To have a physician close at hand takes care of many preventative medicine situations.”
Boosting rural access to care
And that’s where the PMTC comes in. Its mission is to attract clinicians to practice in rural parts of the state where it can be difficult for residents to access the care they need.
Its loan repayment program is the main way the PMTC accomplishes that goal. If a doctor agrees to practice medicine in a rural part of the state, the program will pay back up to $200,000 of medical school loan debt.
Tandberg-Willcox is one of 60 physicians supported by the loan repayment program.
“It’s alleviating a worry in the back of my mind of how to pay off these big loans that I have,” she says. “It’s an extra incentive to stay in the area. All around, it has been a big help.”
Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Oklahoma donated $500,000 to help fund the PMTC Physician Loan Repayment Program and improve access to care.
“Through this unique partnership, we’re able to invest in our rural and tribal communities so Oklahomans have access to quality care, when and where they need it most,” says BCBSOK President Joseph R. Cunningham, M.D.
Tandberg-Willcox moved to Hugo and started treating patients in July 2020. In addition to seeing patients in the clinic and helping them get and stay healthy, she also sees patients around town — Hugo, after all, is just 6.5 square miles.
“I run into patients walking my dog in my neighborhood — all my patients know about Louis,” she says. “It’s a community.”