Medical education group offers rural study opportunities

The Minnesota Area Health Education Center will bring health-related services to rural communities.

Geoffrey Ziezulewicz

After finishing his first year of medical school at the University’s Duluth campus, Paul Tonkin spent a month working with 10 doctors at a hospital and a clinic in Moose Lake, Minn.

During that month, he worked with staff, including paramedics and veterinarians. He said the experience was more than he expected after one year of medical school and was so varied and diverse that he feels more comfortable in different medical settings.

“While working with a rural vet, I neutered a cat. I never thought I would neuter a cat,” Tonkin said. “I still have hopes to go back to help with the fertilization of a cow or something.”

The value of hands-on medical training in a rural setting for University students is one of the factors behind the recent creation of the Minnesota Area Health Education Center.

The state- and federally funded program is the first of its kind in Minnesota, said Brendan Ashby, appointed the center’s director Oct. 7.

The University will use the northeast-Minnesota-based health center as a route to needy communities, he said.

The center will soon meet with communities throughout northeast Minnesota to figure out each area’s health-care needs, Ashby said.

The health center is a grass-roots organization that will do as much or as little as a town or county wants it to do, he said. The health center can help develop health education programs or help specific aspects of existing ones.

Ashby said time spent on site in needy communities prepares future health-care providers for the realities of working in rural settings.

Those realities include needing to know a variety of basic medical procedures, Tonkin said. Specialists like those at Minneapolis hospitals are not available to some rural areas. A rural doctor needs to know basic emergency procedures from delivering a child to performing a colonoscopy.

“How many subdural haematomas does an ER doc see in Grand Marais each year? Probably none,” he said of the emergency head-trauma procedure. “The docs take it upon themselves to stay sharp.”

The health center will also help younger students from rural areas who are interested in medicine, said Ray Christensen, professor of family practice and community health at the Duluth campus.

He said the health center will develop mentoring relationships and support for high school students who wish to pursue medical careers.

The center will also try to nurture overall interest in rural health-care careers through different marketing methods, such as giving health-care coloring books to rural elementary schools, he said.

Finding and helping students of all ages who want to help underserved rural communities is one of the health center’s main objectives, Christensen said.

“The most important is the choice of the right individuals: those committed to a life mission of service to these underserved, and many times distant, communities,” he said.