Dr. Laura McDowell will soon have a special place in American medical history.

On June 24, she will become the first person in the nation to complete a residency training program in obstetrics and gynecology that is focused specifically on caring for women in rural settings.

Faced with a nationwide shortage of obstetricians and gynecologists, especially in rural areas, UW Health and the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health started the nation’s first rural residency in September 2016. The program takes four years to complete.

When a person graduates from medical school and earns their medical degree, their next step is to gain acceptance to a residency program for clinical training under the supervision of attending physicians. This training helps them prepare for board exams to become licensed and board-certified in their medical specialty.

Laura McDowell
Laura McDowell

McDowell matched to the rural residency program at the University of Wisconsin in March 2017 and started her residency in June 2017. Over the past four years she has worked in Madison and at partnering rural sites in Portage, Waupun, Monroe and Western Wisconsin Health in Baldwin.

Next month, the Minnesota native will move to Willmar, Minn., in the rural southwest part of the state, to practice general obstetrics and gynecology.

“It has been an honor to be the first rural OB-GYN resident trainee,” McDowell said. “I feel this residency prepared me very well for my new role, and I am excited to practice in a rural community and support my patients where they live.”

Nearly half the counties in the United States lack an OB-GYN physician, according to the American College of Nurse-Midwives. Additionally, there is currently a shortage of 6,000 to 8,000 OB-GYN physicians and there could be a shortage of up to 22,000 by the year 2050, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) estimated.

In Wisconsin, 27 of 72 counties have no OB-GYN provider. This scarcity disproportionately affects women in rural communities. Fewer than half of women in rural areas live within a 30-minute drive to a hospital with perinatal services, and more than 10% have to drive 100 miles or more, according to ACOG.

Doctors are more likely to establish their practice in the same area where they do their residency, so the program’s goal is to expose them to relevant experience while addressing a serious need, said Dr. Ryan Spencer, OB-GYN residency program director, UW School of Medicine and Public Health.

“We are so excited and proud of Dr. McDowell for being the first person to complete this founding rural OB-GYN residency program,” Spencer said. “We currently have four outstanding rural OB-GYN residents in our program, but there is still a lot of work to be done to improve access to care for the women of Wisconsin.”

In each OB-GYN residency year, six residents practice in Madison and one resident is focused on rural care. The rural resident conducts their training in Madison and rural rotations throughout all four years of the program.