Town in 'Forrest Gump' Thinks Regina Benjamin, MD, Will Bring Home Change

Cheryl Clark, for HealthLeaders Media , July 15, 2009

Nell Stoddard, a nurse at Benjamin's clinic for the last 19 years and whose son is being treated by Benjamin for leukemia, has tremendous confidence that if confirmed for the top doctor post, Benjamin will make an impact not just in Bayou La Batre and Alabama, but throughout the country as well.

"She is adamant about making sure people get the right care. And when our offices burned down and we lost everything, she was adamant to get computers, and put all the records on those computers."

Benjamin, her colleagues say, is driven to change the system not just because of the conditions in her town, but as a former president of the Alabama Medical Association, she is well aware the state has some of the worst healthcare measurement scores in the country. For starters, nearly one-third of its adult residents are obese, the second highest rate in the U.S. And the prevalence of obese Alabama citizens has been increasing.

A recent national population study found the state, which has 4.6 million people, ranked "weak" or "very weak" and significantly worse than the average of other states in eight of 12 healthcare categories including heart disease, preventive, maternal child health, cancer, and respiratory care.

Trying to operate a clinic in a rural setting presents issues that are a big part of that challenge.

As Obama introduced Benjamin in the Rose Garden Monday, he used the word "rural" no fewer than five times.

And many hope the obstacles to healthcare faced especially by rural communities, such as a shortage of health providers, low budgets, long-distances from homes to medical care, lack of specialist and primary care physicians, and high numbers of poor and uninsured will be a top priority for Benjamin, along with Congress and the U.S. healthcare system, to overcome.

Alan Morgan, executive director of the National Rural Health Association, applauded her nomination and called Benjamin a "role model for rural clinicians.

"Her efforts to serve her local rural community are certainly well known nationally. She fully understands that these challenges cannot be solved with a simple sound bite from our Nation's Capital. She also understands that the healthcare disparities, combined with local cultures and regional customs in rural America will need unique and localized solutions."

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Cheryl Clark is senior quality editor and California correspondent for HealthLeaders Media. She is a member of the Association of Health Care Journalists.

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