New OMPW director seeks to awaken physicians’ primary care, small-town zeal
By Gary Pettus
Dr. John Mitchell’s career started on a dare.
“I was in my second year at Ole Miss and my friend and I were on the steps of the Lyceum looking through the courses in the catalog, wondering what we were going to do,” he said. “I said, ‘That looks pretty good – I will if you will.’
“So we walked into the Lyceum and registered for pharmacy.”
That whim led Mitchell to his first taste of medicine, triggering a craving that lured him into medical school, a family practice and, lately, an appointment that has further distinguished his long career.
As the recently named director of the Office of Mississippi Physician Workforce (OMPW) at the University of Mississippi Medical Center, he is still making dares. This time, his challenge is to his fellow physicians: Go where you’re needed the most.
“It’s a daunting task,” said Mitchell, who recently served as chair of the OMPW advisory board. “But we’re going to make the best of it and we’re going to try and make Mississippi a better state through it.”
The task – assigned to the OMPW by state legislators when they created it in 2012 – is to reduce the shortage of primary care doctors in a state with the lowest per capita supply in the nation.
Leading that effort now is Mitchell, a family physician hospitalist with North Mississippi Medical Center in Pontotoc and former faculty member with the center’s Family Medicine Residency Program. At stake is, among other things, the improvement in access to health care for all Mississippians, Mitchell said.
Dr. Diane Beebe, the recent interim director of the OMPW, praised her successor.
“He has a passion and a vision and understands the needs of this state,” said Beebe, professor and chair of family medicine. “I am delighted he is willing to take this challenge with us and look forward to great things.”
Mitchell’s early years did not necessarily prepare him for this challenge, or at least they didn’t prepare him for medical school. He grew up in rural Mississippi, a small town in Lafayette County, brought up by parents who didn’t finish high school.
“I never had an inkling I would go into medicine,” Mitchell said. “I thought in order to go to medical school, you had to be rich, have an ancestor who was a physician or be exceptionally brilliant, and I was none of the above.
“In college, I majored in hunting and fishing, and went to school on the side.”
His studies rallied once he got into pharmacy school, the result of that impulsive decision he made as a sophomore at the University of Mississippi. After graduation, he worked at pharmacies in Oxford and Pontotoc, and then in Fort Polk, La., once he joined the U.S. Army Medical Service Corps.
It was at Fort Polk that Mitchell saw military doctors in action and realized he’d found his true calling.
“I figured if they can do this, then I’m capable of doing as well, if not better, than many of them,” he said.
He was right. After beginning medical school at UMMC in 1982, he joined the Mississippi Army National Guard Medical Corps. He continued that association throughout his family medicine residency in Tuscaloosa, Ala., which he completed in 1989.
His experience in the service taught him some lessons that may give him a leg up as director of the OMPW.
“I used to want everything yesterday, but it doesn’t work that way,” he said. “I realized in the military that there are hoops you have to jump through, that there is a pecking order and that you have to be patient.”
As it turned out, Mitchell’s childhood did help shape his career as well.
“I got my idea of what a doctor should be from our family physician back home, Dr. Gerry Hopkins,” he said. “Where you come from, your roots, all have a lot to do with career paths and this is especially true for primary care. The background I came from made me want to go back home and help people there.
“I would call it a missionary zeal to want to go back to small-town America as a primary care physician.”
Mitchell hopes to awaken that zeal in a number of Mississippi’s doctors. Right now, Mississippi needs to add more than 1,300 primary care physicians, whose specialties include family medicine, general internal medicine, pediatrics and obstetrics/gynecology. That would bring the state up to the national average.
“Desperate times are great motivators,” said Mitchell, whose credentials include the completion of a primary care faculty development fellowship at Michigan State University.
His own ideas include adding at least three more family medicine residency training programs throughout Mississippi during the next three to five years, developing partnerships that would boost medical training opportunities in rural areas and molding a strong relationship with the Mississippi Rural Physicians Scholarship Program.
The latter is the initiative that encourages rural college students to return to their roots to practice medicine – exactly the path Mitchell took many years ago. Now, he must trim his practice for his new job; as OMPW director, he is an official member of the UMMC faculty, meaning he will be traveling back and forth between Jackson and Pontotoc.
“This is one of those once-in-a-lifetime opportunities, but my feeling for the patients is, ‘Please forgive me for leaving,’” he said. “I create the vacancy I’m trying to fill.
“But, by creating one vacancy, I hope I can fill many more.”