Rural parts of North Carolina need more doctors. He’s trying to change that.

Dr. Robert Bashford helps lead the Rural Initiatives Program at the UNC School of Medicine.
Dr. Robert Bashford helps lead the Rural Initiatives Program at the UNC School of Medicine. Max Englund/UNC Health Care

Dr. Robert Bashford has always gone where he’s needed. He has worked as an OB-GYN, a psychiatrist and as the dean of admissions at the UNC School of Medicine. Now as the assistant dean of the school’s Rural Initiative Program, he recruits doctors to practice in rural North Carolina. Bashford, 72, talks about the need for more doctors, his career at UNC and why he always roots for N.C. State.

Q: Why is there a shortage of primary care physicians in rural areas of the state?

A: Students finish medical school in debt (and specialize so they can work in bigger cities to pay it off). So debt forgiveness allows them not to have to be super specialists.

Q: Is debt forgiveness the incentive behind the Rural Initiative Program?

A: Six years ago, the William R. Kenan Jr. Charitable Trust said, “What if we put a significant amount of money in med students’ hands through (debt forgiveness) with the promise that they would go into under-served rural North Carolina and provide care?”

Q: What’s the focus of the program?

A: It tends to look hard at public health issues. When I was in med school, I learned to solve problems. I never thought about asking anybody, “Do you have enough to eat?” As I got into OB, I began to ask questions like, “Are you safe at home?” But still I didn’t get into, “Are your streets lit? How do you get your medical care? What’s your transportation?”

In this new world I’m in, I recognize that people have to take two buses and carry children under their arm to get to the doctor. It’s very expensive to come to the big hospital. We’ll continue to be a top-notch research specialty hospital; at the same time, we want to get more caretakers into rural under-served areas.

Q: What kind of medical student are you looking for?

A: We’ve got to recruit people who have a rural heart. You can’t buy people going into rural North Carolina. You’ve got to get people who live that life, love that life and want to be part of a community.

Q: Where will you send them?

A: That’s tricky. They have got to be welcomed and wanted. I have to help them find what fits. If they just went out and opened an office and the community hasn’t invited them, it’s not going to work.

With the help of the Office of Rural Health, the N.C. Medical Society and the N.C. Farm Bureau, we’re going to help these docs work in obstetrics, psychiatry and general surgery in addition to family medicine and internal medicine.

Q: You’ve been working at the UNC School of Medicine in some capacity since 1991, and yet you’re a die-hard Wolfpack fan. How did that happen?

A: I was born in Raleigh and raised right there in Cameron Park. I went to Broughton High School and did my undergrad at N.C. State. My dad was a man of great faith and loved Raleigh, and when he was back inside the city limits he’d say, “Mama, I’m not going to die outside of Raleigh.” I grew up with that kind of spirit and that kind of love.

I was a ball boy for the basketball team; I was out there wiping up sweat, and it was the best job I ever had. When I was 12 years old, maybe 13, we were playing in the Dixie Classic and there was a time-out, and I remember thinking, “I wonder if a 13-year-old has ever died from being this excited?”

Q: Yet Chapel Hill students have voted you to give the commencement speech at the medical school seven times. Why do you think you’re so popular?

A: Well, I’m kind of fun. I love these young people. I love what they’re doing; I love their spirit. The new medical student really gets the big picture. They’ve done things like Peace Corps or Teach for America.

I taught psychiatry in the medical school. It’s got to be the hardest thing to teach for a lot of reasons – it comes close to home. We all have some emotional issues or have a family member who does. What I did in my teaching world was work very hard to make the class enjoyable. They can tell when you want to be there.

Know someone who would make a good Tar Heel of the Week? Send nominations to tarheel@newsobserver.com.

Robert Bashford – Tar Heel of the Week

Born and raised: Raleigh

Residence: Chapel Hill

Education: Broughton High School, N.C. State, UNC School of Medicine.

Family: Wife, Cynthia; step-son, two grown sons; two grandchildren.

Fun fact: The James B. Hunt Jr. Library at N.C. State named a book-finding robot or “book-bot” after Bashford.