Dr. Brent Smith could have taken his medical degree and set up his practice in a city big enough for a Target and a Cracker Barrel.
Instead, he passed up more lucrative opportunities for a family medicine career in 14,000-population Cleveland, Miss.
“Part of me always wanted to go home,” said Smith, 32, who played high school football in Cleveland, where most of his family still lives. “I thought about doing orthopedic surgery when I was in medical school, but I didn’t like not being able to connect on a personal level with patients.
“I realized family medicine is where I’m supposed to be. It’s a very rural area here, and we need all the primary care we can get.”
Smith is being recognized for his devotion to the state’s rural population with Mississippi’s 2015 Rural Health Champion Award, an honor bestowed by the Myrlie Evers-Williams Institute for the Elimination of Health Disparities at the University of Mississippi Medical Center. It goes to “an unsung hero who makes a notable contribution to health, health care, or a health-care delivery system in a rural Mississippi community,” said Erica Collins-Young, recruitment and retention coordinator in the Institute’s Office of Population Health.
The award is presented in conjunction with National Rural Health Day, celebrated the third Thursday in November. On Nov. 30, Gov. Phil Bryant is scheduled to sign a proclamation recognizing Nov. 20 as Rural Health Day in Mississippi. Collins-Young and others from the Institute honored Smith Nov. 19 at his office with a plaque and a celebration for family and staff.
A total 12 health-care providers were nominated for Rural Health Champion, all of them excellent candidates, Colllins-Young said. “What’s so great about Dr. Smith is that he’s a UMMC graduate,” Collins said. “He is a really great guy, very approachable, and he really cares about the children in the Cleveland area. Everyone has something positive to say about him.”
Dr. Jeanann Suggs, a UMMC resident in radiation oncology, has known Smith since he was in medical school. “He started from the get-go trying to improve health care for all Mississippians. He was a Rural Physicians Scholar. He knew where he’d come from, and what improvements he could make. He’s always been a champion of the hometown,” said Suggs, who nominated Smith.
Smith is “making his mark, not only doing rural medicine, but also in increasing access to health care for athletes,” Suggs said. “He’s played football, so he can relate to them. He’s walked through everybody’s steps. He’s Delta-born and bred, and he’s grown up with the challenges they face.”
When he was in high school, Smith said, he suffered a shoulder injury “and ended up seeing a doctor locally who misdiagnosed it. It led me to have ongoing issues with my shoulder, and it could have threatened my ability to play football and life going forward.
“I realized there needs to be resources here, or otherwise, athletes end up going two hours away,” said Smith, who also provides emergency room care at two rural hospitals. “When you talk about orthopaedics for young athletes, you need to be specialized in the area to get good results.”
Smith serves on the sports medicine advisory committee for the Mississippi High School Activities Association and was a primary care sports medicine fellow at the University of Alabama. He’s served as a team physician for Delta State University and is passionate about keeping young athletes healthy and safe.
“Between Medicaid and CHIP (Mississippi’s Children’s Health Insurance Program), they should have some type access to health care. But that doesn’t take care of transportation issues, or parents working during those hours, or other difficulties,” Smith said. “Sports physicals at school often get that done.”
Despite the state’s reputation for diseases including diabetes, obesity and hypertension, “we also know that Mississippi has a great deal of good things going on that sometimes go unnoticed,” said Dr. Michael Jones, chief community health officer in the Office of Population Studies and the Institute’s deputy director.
“That includes the men and women who are in the trenches working to improve the health of the citizens of our state,” Jones said. “Dr. Brent Smith is one such individual who works to ensure the poor and underserved have access to healthcare and provides the highest quality of services in his community. We are very proud of him and others who do similar work at the community level.”
In his three years of practice, Smith said, he’s enjoyed taking care of family and friends he grew up with. “It’s rewarding to see that they put their faith in you. I grew up admiring and respecting members of my church and neighbors that I now take care of. You’re giving back to the people who did so much for you.”
“It’s so impressive that he is such a young man and making such an impact,” Suggs said. “He knows the challenges that need to be addressed, and that the mentality needs to be changed on being overweight and leading an unhealthy lifestyle. That makes him very effective in the education of his patients.”
“People who dedicate themselves to rural health can go anywhere,” Collins-Young said. “They are very talented and go so much further than required. We need to recognize them, and to let them know that we are watching them and appreciate them.”