Keeping doctors in Western New York: New scholarship fund pays tuition for local medical students

 Alyssa Volmrich, James Miller, Gina Sparacino.

Left to Right: Alyssa Volmrich, James Miller and Gina Sparacino are the first recipients of WNY Medical Scholarships. (photo: Doug Levere)

Led by UB alumnus John Bodkin, a who’s who of local organizations and individuals has taken the initiative in addressing the community’s physician shortage

Release Date: March 9, 2015

“Our goal is to keep more locally trained doctors in Western New York.”
John J. Bodkin, II, MD, Family physician
Founder, co-chair, WNY Medical Scholarship Fund

BUFFALO, N.Y. —  Alarmed by the steady decline in the number of physicians practicing in Western New York, local physicians and community leaders have created a new organization designed to train and keep more doctors in the area.

VIDEO at The Western New York Medical Scholarship Fund is a new, independent, community organization that provides four-year scholarships to Western New York students to attend the University at Buffalo School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences.

Students accepted to the UB medical school must meet highly select criteria to be eligible for these scholarships. They must have graduated from a high school within the eight counties of Western New York, excel academically and have a demonstrated financial need.

In order to accept the scholarship, they also must pledge to stay in Western New York to practice. Each awardee will receive a minimum of $30,000 annually for each of the four years of medical school.

The first three recipients, selected in February, are: James Miller, a graduate of Frontier High School; Gina Sparacino, a Kenmore East High School graduate and Alyssa Volmrich, a graduate of Holy Angels Academy.

“Our goal is to keep more locally trained doctors in Western New York,” says John J. Bodkin, II, MD, co-chair and founder of the Western New York Medical Scholarship Fund and an alumnus of the UB medical school.

Addressing the shortage

As a family physician at Highgate Medical Group in Buffalo, Bodkin knows all too well how badly Western New York needs new doctors.

“If I have patients who need to see a dermatologist, they may have to wait three to four months,” says Bodkin. “Their problem could be acute by then. If a family doctor like myself refers a diabetic patient to an endocrinologist, that’s because the patient is very sick but it can take months before the endocrinologist can see them.”

In 2013, the Healthcare Association of New York State (HANYS) reported that Western New York was experiencing the worst doctor shortage in the state. The non-profit organization found that while the national average for the number of family medicine physicians, for example, is about 80 per 100,000 patients, Western New York has only 60. In general surgery, the national average is about eight per 100,000 and Western New York has only five.

It’s well known, Bodkin says, that medical students tend to remain in the same area where they study medicine or complete their residency training. Similar scholarship programs developed in other cities in order to retain physicians have been successful.

“We felt that if we could offer scholarships to Western New York students who went to high school here and have established family ties here, and then offer incentives, such as mentoring by local doctors, we could influence them to stay and practice here after graduation and residency.”

Organizations that have contributed a full scholarship are: Catholic Health System; Erie County Medical Center; BlueCross BlueShield of Western New York; Independent Health; Kaleida Health; Roswell Park Cancer Institute and West-Herr Automotive Group as well as the UB medical school and the UB Medical Alumni Association.

Contributors to the fund’s endowment are: Amherst Ear Nose and Throat; Great Lakes Medical Imaging; Highgate Medical Group; Nephrology Associates of WNY; Northtowns Cardiology; Gerald Sufrin, MD; WNY Urology Associates; Windsong Radiology Group and David M. Zebro.

The fund’s ultimate goal is to raise enough money to sustain between six and ten scholarships a year over the next decade.  

Michael E. Cain, MD, vice president for health sciences and dean of the UB medical school, said that the creation of the scholarship fund was extremely welcome news.

“John Bodkin and his colleagues have demonstrated extraordinary creativity in responding to what is becoming a significant problem in our region,” he says. “The fund’s founders and the organizations that have stepped up to contribute to the scholarship fund are to be commended. In addition to helping address the region’s physician shortage, it provides some of our top students with an incentive to stay where many would prefer to practice -- in the community where they grew up and have strong personal connections.”

Currently, there are 69 Western New York natives – nearly half the class of 144 -- in the freshman class of the UB medical school. A total of 126 are New York State residents and 18 are from out of state.

The UB medical school requires that to be considered for admission, applicants must be a U.S. citizen or a permanent resident of the US. The UB medical school will not consider or accept for admission applicants who are not U.S. citizens or permanent U.S. residents.

Local leaders stress that addressing the physician shortage will take multiple approaches. Cain, notes, for example, that the new UB medical school building, the largest under construction in the U.S., also will address the shortage because it will educate 40 more physicians each year, raising the class size to 180.

The first WNY Medical Scholars

The three inaugural winners of the medical scholarship fund are all in their first year of medical school at UB.

 “I thought it was incredible, really exciting,” says Miller, of finding out he was awarded the scholarship. “I’ve heard of programs like this in other cities and I think it’s great to have something tailored for Western New York.” Miller worked for eight years as a physician’s assistant (PA) but was encouraged to go to medical school even while studying to be a PA. “It’s been an interesting journey,” says Miller, who is married and has two children, aged 1 and 3 years old.

Sparacino was in hematology class when she received a message asking her to contact a staff person at the medical school. “I was freaking out,” she says, “but it was awesome when I heard the good news.” A Canisius College graduate, she became interested in medicine when her grandfather was hospitalized for an extended period at Roswell Park Cancer Institute. “I started shadowing doctors and was volunteering at Roswell,” she says. “I wanted to give back.”

Volmrich began her undergraduate career at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh as a pre-dental student, then switched to pre-med. Now, she’s interested in pursuing geriatrics, partly as a result of her family demographics. “I only have one brother and my mother is an only child, but my grandmother is one of seven children,” she says. “Growing up, I had a lot of contact with them, so a lot of my closest relatives are now in their 80s. I feel like the elderly need a lot of special care that they sometimes don’t get.”

Creating the fund

Bodkin got the idea to form the fund after discussing scholarships with members of the UB Medical Alumni Association.

“It was clear that creating more scholarships for UB medical students is a priority,” says Bodkin.

Bodkin began working with his co-chair, David M. Zebro, principal of Strategic Investments & Holdings, to generate interest and raise funds. They began contacting local physicians, business and health care industry leaders as well as concerned citizens.

The idea caught on, especially after the 2013 report from HANYS underscored the severity of the problem in Western New York.

Representatives from the Western New York Medical Scholarship Fund and the medical school conducted interviews and chose the first three scholarship recipients.

In addition to Bodkin and Zebro, members of the fund’s board are Michael O'Mara of O’Mara Financial and Edward J. Rutkowski, former county executive and Buffalo Bill. Two representatives from the UB medical school also serve on the board.

Founded in 1846, the University at Buffalo School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences is beginning a new chapter in its history with the largest medical education building under construction in the nation. The eight-story, 628,000-square-foot facility is scheduled to open in 2017. The new location puts superior medical education, clinical care and pioneering research in close proximity, anchoring Buffalo’s evolving comprehensive academic health center in a vibrant downtown setting.  These new facilities will better enable the school to advance health and wellness across the life span for the people of New York and the world through research, clinical care and the education of tomorrow’s leaders in health care and biomedical sciences. The school’s faculty and residents provide care for the community’s diverse populations through strong clinical partnerships and the school’s practice plan, UBMD.

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