Peggy Abels
director of Health Science Programs, 308.865.8260 or

A new program encouraging nontraditional students to become family practice physicians in rural Nebraska to help alleviate a shortage of healthcare providers is beginning this fall semester at the University of Nebraska at Kearney.

Selected students will receive full tuition scholarships from UNK for their pre-professional studies. If the students maintain a 3.5 grade point average or better and pass medical school entrance examinations, they are guaranteed entry into the University of Nebraska College of Medicine. The medical college is partnering with UNK in the program. 

“The rural physician shortage is a huge problem nationally,” said Peggy Abels, UNK director of Health Science Programs. “More than 51 million Americans live in areas classified by the U.S. Office of Management and Budget as non-metropolitan—a full one-fifth of the U.S. population. Yet only 10 percent of the nation’s physicians are practicing in these areas. More than 20 million of those non-metro residents live in areas that have a shortage of physicians to meet their basic needs.”

In many isolated communities, a drive to the nearest healthcare provider can take hours, greatly decreasing chances of survival in an emergency.  

The first two students in the UNK program, Hilary Miller and Justin Westengaard, live in small towns in Nebraska. “We’ve selected people who are committed to practicing family medicine and have already demonstrated their willingness to make rural Nebraska their home,” Abels said. “These are key elements in making this program work where other programs to encourage rural-bound doctors have had mixed results.”Miller is from Spalding, and Westengaard lives in Minden.

Next year, when the program is operating at full capacity, up to five students per year may be admitted to the program.  

Mark Edwards, M.D. and assistant dean of admissions at the UNMC College of Medicine in Omaha, sees the effort as an effective approach to a problem that has defied easy solutions.

“Training high quality, compassionate physicians to meet the needs of all of Nebraska is our first mission at the University of Nebraska Medical Center College of Medicine,” he said. “We are pleased to partner with the University of Nebraska at Kearney in an innovative program to train rural family physicians. UNK’s dedication to making this unique project a success has been instrumental in accepting our first two students into this new program. I believe this effort has an excellent chance of providing physicians for rural Nebraska for years to come.”

“We hope that this is a practical and effective way to deal with this shortage,” Abels said. “Many rural Nebraskans find it increasingly difficult to find a primary care physician or specialist as many rural doctors retire or move to suburban areas where salaries are greater. We have to move quickly.”

Nontraditional students have either an undergraduate degree or are well on their way to earning one.  While most have a science background, it is not requirement in order to be eligible to apply for the program. To help these students succeed in their medical studies, an individualized pre-med curriculum will be designed for each student and will primarily consist of upper level science courses.  

The UNK Health Science Programs has undergraduate academic programs in 19 different health-related fields including respiratory therapy, radiography and medical technology. Pre-professional programs include medicine, physical therapy, pharmacy, dentistry, podiatry, health information management and nuclear medicine technology.

The overall acceptance rate of pre-professional UNK students into professional health schools has been successful with approximately 70 percent over the last 10 years, better than twice the national average, Abels said.