Christina Thabit's decision to attend medical school was largely influenced by doctors she met in her Bakersfield hometown, many of whom encouraged her to one day practice in the valley.

"Our valley needs help," said Thabit, 25. "What better way to get doctors into Bakersfield than if we grow them?"

That's why Thabit applied to a new program at UC Merced that will allow UC Davis School of Medicine students to spend their third and fourth years of clinical training in the San Joaquin Valley. The new medical education program, called PRIME, also marks the first step in the university's effort to create its own medical school -- though David Hosley, the vice chancellor for university relations, cautioned that the endeavor is far from funded.

"This is a small but important step in addressing the shortage of healthcare professionals in the valley," he said. "We hope the program will grow, and, in the long term, we'll help meet the crying need."

About 150 students applied for the five slots in this year's class, the majority of whom had a personal connection with the valley, Hosley said. There are no requirements to ultimately practice locally, but applicants had to show they wanted to work in underserved areas such as the San Joaquin Valley, as well as demonstrate knowledge of the region's distinct health concerns.

The students in the program come from Modesto, Fowler, Salinas, Fresno and Bakersfield. Each student received a $10,000 scholarship to offset the cost of tuition, which is about $31,000 a year. They'll spend their first two years of medical school at UC Davis, but will work their third and fourth clinical years in various valley locations. Those locations haven't been determined yet, but during this week's orientation, they'll visit clinics in Firebaugh, San Joaquin, Modesto and Fresno.

UC Merced is using a $5 million grant from the United Health Foundation to help fund the new program. They also are hoping to raise additional money to sustain the program in future years, said Brandy Nikaido, the spokeswoman for UC Merced.

Nikaido said the program helps to fill the missing link that could keep future doctors close to home throughout their careers.

"If they can go all the way from high school to completing their residency here, there's a greater likelihood they'll stay to practice," she said. "We were missing the medical school step."

The San Joaquin Valley has 173 physicians per 100,000 people, compared to 415 for the Bay Area and 294 in Southern California, according to a 2006 study by the Central Valley Health Policy Institute at Fresno State.

Dr. Royce Johnson, chairman of the department of medicine at Kern Medical Center, said residency -- not medical school -- is the most instrumental in determining where a doctor ultimately resides. That's because residency is often when doctors marry, buy a home and have kids, he said. If people in the program come from Bakersfield, that could have a positive impact on the doctors in the area, Johnson said, though he said he'd like to see a UC medical school campus closer to home.

Even if just a few of the program graduates attended residency in the Central Valley, it could impact local physician shortages, said Steve Schilling, CEO of Clinica Sierra Vista, who has been involved in the discussions to bring a medical school to the valley.

"I think you have to take a regional, Central Valley viewpoint on this matter," he said. "This is an extremely intelligent move to address healthcare shortages that are critical in the valley."

Thabit, who graduated from Cal State Long Beach and Stockdale High School, said her "ideal situation" would be to return to Bakersfield or the surrounding areas when she's ready to practice. Thabit recently spent about two years working at the Comprehensive Blood & Cancer Center, a position that gave her some compelling insights on Bakersfield's distinct needs.

"CBCC showed me what we can do if we bring our heads together," she said. "People don't have to travel to the Bay Area or L.A." for care.

Dr. Ravi Patel, founder of the CBCC, said Bakersfield can use more doctors like Thabit who are aware of the local needs, and who can commit to the region.

"I sincerely hope she comes back into the community," he said. "When she left we said, 'Hey, you better come back here.'"