LAKIN, Kan. (Christian Examiner) – When Benjamin Anderson was faced with finding doctors to staff two small clinics in western Kansas, he searched for them in an unlikely place: the International Family Medicine Fellowship at the nearby Via Christi Family Medicine Residency. Essentially, he decided to recruit missionary doctors.
The fellowship attracts "medical missionaries to work in under-served areas of rural Africa," Anderson, the CEO of Kearney County Hospital, told the Garden City Telegram.
I saw the connection between rural Zimbabwe and rural Kansas in the same way they struggle with the difficult issue of access to care. For us, it's a fixed-winged airplane getting to Wichita to save someone from a heart attack. For them, it's a guy pushing someone in a wheelbarrow for three days to the nearest hospital to save a foot.
But southwestern Kansas also provides the missionaries with valuable mission experience, including the opportunity to treat a diverse range of people, which will help them in their goals to serve people's medical needs overseas.
For the last 18 months, Anderson's hospital had to turn away many uninsured or underinsured from the 25-bed hospital because of a lack of medical providers. "As of Aug. 1, that changed," he said. "We now have the capacity to see people. The presence of these doctors is the reason we were able to deliver 210 babies in the last year."
Anderson wanted to attract doctors who loved serving others, rather than those who wanted to work only for money. Those in the international fellowship suited his needs exactly, especially when he was able to accommodate their travel needs and offer paid leave for their international missions.
"We've hired four doctors out of there [Via Christi]," Anderson said. "What we've figured out is we're able to offer them time off to do mission work overseas, and we're able to show them the need, the under-served nature of where we live. They find gratification in both places."
Southwest Kansas is home to more than 30 nationalities and continues to draw a diverse immigrant population.
Because Anderson's hospital and a local clinic serve only a few hundred people, it can be difficult to attract and support the quality and quantity of doctors Anderson desired. But he has been able to staff several doctors who may work only part of the year in America because they are participating in the rotating five-month overseas program through Via Christi.
"We'll tell you, if you want to go to Burma, we'll pay you for the time off to go serve there part of the year," Anderson said, speaking about his recruitment strategy. "But for the rest of the year, we have a Burmese population 15 miles east of us. If you want to go to Somalia, Sudan or parts of South America or Central America, we'll support and go with you. We encourage that. But the same nationalities exist here."
Anderson also found that partnering with other hospitals helped him draw missionary doctors to his area. By attracting the doctors to work half the week in his hospital and another two or three days in an alternate nearby clinic, he was able to offer them the hours they needed.
"We need to look at a statewide approach to recruiting the mission-minded," said Anderson. "We are losing these doctors to overseas because they are not aware of the need here. We need to structure an organization in such a way to employ them."
Anderson's system of group recruitment to fill regional needs has benefited the hospitals throughout the county. He plans to build a network of six to eight doctors to serve a 50-mile area.
When Anderson came to Dr. Todd Stephens of Via Christi with his staffing challenges, Stephens encouraged Anderson to recruit at least two doctors from his program—and to travel with them to understand their calling.
Stephens himself went to Rwanda during his medical school years, which "changed the trajectory of my life," he said. "I wasn't expecting the impact, but I came back with a new set of glasses on. The world had completely changed for me."
Whether the graduates of his program live permanently overseas or frequently travel for short-term missions, he believes he has instructed them well by showing them the human needs that are common around the globe—and by giving them the experiences that will equip them to serve.
A SHARED CALLING
On Stephens' advice, Anderson went to Zimbabwe with one of the doctors. While he built mosquito screens to help prevent malaria, he discovered how he could help fulfill the calling of missionary doctors in Kansas.
"I saw the connection between rural Zimbabwe and rural Kansas in the same way they struggle with the difficult issue of access to care," Anderson said. "For us, it's a fixed-winged airplane getting to Wichita to save someone from a heart attack. For them, it's a guy pushing someone in a wheelbarrow for three days to the nearest hospital to save a foot."
Anderson began to recruit in groups, not only to fill scheduling holes among several medical centers but so that the missionaries could work with colleagues who were also called to serve.
Dr. John Birky, a mission-minded colleague of Anderson who has worked at the nearby Mexican-American Ministries in Garden City, has found fulfillment serving in America and internationally.
"After I got to southwest Kansas I realized the incredible diversity," Birky said. "The stuff I went to Africa for, the same needs, the cross cultures and cultural barriers to health care—all exist in Kansas."
Anderson's vision is to provide Kansans with exceptional medical care as well as to give his doctors opportunities to grow their careers.
"Some are goers," Anderson said. "If they come work for us here for three or four years, we'll help prepare them to move overseas. The community becomes a sending point for them. We will support and encourage them." He also hires doctors who stay in Kansas and take frequent short-term mission trips.
"At this point, we're receiving more interest from medical providers than we can hire," Anderson said.