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Missourians who need rehabilitative care for serious injuries and disabling conditions such as stroke have a tremendous treasure tucked away in Southwest Missouri. The Missouri Rehabilitation Center in Mount Vernon has just undergone a change that will allow it to play a more integral role in serving Missourians' health-care needs. As of July 1, the state transferred operation of MRC to the University of Missouri Health Sciences Center.

Old-timers will remember MRC, founded in 1907 as the State Tuberculosis Sanatorium, as a place where friends or loved ones could go to receive treatment for the horrible plague of TB. In 1971, to respond to Missouri's evolving health-care needs, the General Assemble broadened MRC's mission and name to reflect a focus on all chest diseases. The state further extended that mission in 1985 to comprehensive rehabilitation services, retaining the center's inpatient unit and the state TV reference laboratory.

Until July 1, MRC was the only remaining hospital operated by the Missouri Department of Health. Its transfer to the MU Health Sciences Center marked the end of a historic chapter in the history of Missouri medicine.

Just over five years ago, the Department of Health transferred operation of the Ellis Fischel Cancer Center in Columbia to the Health Sciences Center. During the days when most cancers were considered incurable, researchers and physicians at Ellis Fischel developed a national reputation for quality as they helped thousands of Missourians battle for life. But the time came when Ellis Fischel itself needed more care than the state could give it. The marriage with the university has revitalized Ellis Fischel, returning it to the status of a premier cancer center.

Like Ellis Fischel, MRC needed another successful health-care organization as a partner to keep it thriving. The reasons this time were different, but just as expedient. As managed care reaches farther into the rural areas of our state, smaller hospitals are recognizing the need to join with other facilities and organizations in order to bid successfully for HMO contracts. Instead of leaving MRC out there to fend for itself, leaders in our state government wisely decided to find a suitable organization that could operate the center.

What does MRC do for Missourians? Today the center is known primarily as home to Missouri's largest brain-injury rehabilitation program. The center features an extensive program that focuses on weaning pulmonary patients from their dependency on ventilators. Outpatient cardiac and pulmonary rehabilitation programs and a primary-care clinic also are available. With a telemedicine link in the works, MRC will be able to consult with MU specialists.

The merger with the university will give MRC opportunities to serve Missourians in other ways besides patient care. MU researchers can include MRC's patients in studies aimed at improving the quality of life for those with disabilities. Visiting medical students and resident physicians will be able to learn about rehabilitative care in a setting away from the confines of a tertiary-care hospital.

There is another motive here, however. In exposing these young people to MRC and other practice opportunities away from the big city, we hope that more of them will consider living and working in rural Missouri communities. No matter which part of the state they are from, families should have access to the medical care that they need.

Dr. Lester R. Bryant is the dean of the University of Missouri-Columbia School of Medicine.