Rural docs in high demand; U helps

The Medical School offers a nine-month rural physician associate program.

Naomi Scott

She is only a third-year medical student, but Julie Dejong is on call around the clock in her tiny hometown of Montevideo, Minn.

Dejong said she has seen everything from mundane colds to chronic cases of asthma as part of a nine-month elective with the rural physician associate program. The program has its headquarters at the University’s Medical School.

Dejong is one of more than 1,000 third-year medical students who have participated in the program since its start in 1971. The program began in response to a statewide shortage of doctors in rural areas and aims to alleviate that problem.

Jennifer Kertz, Minnesota Area Health Education Center deputy director, said that by 2010, Minnesota will need to have more than 13,000 practicing physicians to continue to provide care at the current access level.

The state currently has approximately 9,400 practicing physicians, according to the Minnesota Department of Health.

The center has health-care facilities in northeastern and southern Minnesota. Each center works with the University and the community to develop creative strategies to address the unique health-care concerns of the area, Kertz said.

The southern Minnesota center was approved at the University Board of Regents meeting in December.

The centers’ goals include supporting rural youth who might be considering a health-related career, providing continuing education for rural health-care providers and listening to communities to determine their health needs.

Kathy Huntley, executive director of the southern center, in Willmar, Minn., said one of the center’s goals is to train medical interpreters in helping the many minority groups – such as Hispanics, Somalis and Laotians – that have settled in the region.

She said she hopes that in time, people from these groups will themselves become health-care professionals in southern Minnesota.

“We need our health-care workforce to look more like our population,” she said.

A key issue in northeastern Minnesota is mental and behavioral health, said Brendan Ashby, executive director of the northeastern center, in Hibbing, Minn.

“We don’t have enough qualified providers for mental and behavioral health in the northeast area,” Ashby said.

Kertz said that because most medical schools are in urban settings, many students choose to stay in cities to practice.

Huntley said health-care professionals who grew up in rural settings will be most happy practicing in rural areas.

Sixty-four percent of former program students – currently practicing in Minnesota – work in rural areas, said William Fricke, travel coordinator for the program.

Fricke said students in the program “see and do 10 times more” than students who have rotations on the Twin Cities campus.

He said the students in the rural physicians program act as first assistants in many surgical procedures they encounter in the first six weeks of their surgery rotations.

Dejong said she enjoys the rural setting she grew up in and has known since she was young that she wanted to be a doctor there.

She said working in a town with one surgeon and few specialists is much different from what medical students encounter in an urban setting.

Still, Dejong said she gets a lot of hands-on experience at Chippewa County Montevideo Hospital and doctors let her know when an unusual case occurs.

She said she recalled a woman who came to the hospital with symptoms similar to pneumonia. Upon further examination, doctors discovered she was suffering from metastasizing cancer.

“A patient can come in with something that seems common, and it can be something uncommon,” Dejong said, “even in a rural setting.”