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10/9/2013 12:01:00 AM
Rural Medicine: New program aims to bring young doctors to smaller communities
Andrea Wendling
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Andrea Wendling
Jessica Evans
News Manager

Medical students at Michigan State University (MSU) wishing to pursue a career in rural health have a better opportunity to do so, due to the MSU College of Human Medicine's new Rural Community Health Program.

The program, which was launched in July 2013, is designed to encourage future physicians to pursue careers in rural health and to give them the tools and skills necessary to do so.

Three northern Michigan hospitals have been selected to participate in this pilot program, including McLaren Northern Michigan, Alpena Regional Medical Center and Charlevoix Area Hospital. Students will spend a portion of their third and fourth years of medical school living within one of these communities, learning various aspects of rural medicine.

Andrea Wendling, M.D. is a rural family physician in northern Michigan and associate professor at the College of Human Medicine and is director of the Rural Community Health Program. According to her, the program will not only help meet the needs of students wanting to go into rural health, but will also meet the needs of providing physicians in rural communities throughout the state.

"There is a health shortage in rural medicine across the U.S. and specifically in Michigan," Wendling noted. "We know our best chance at getting and retaining rural doctors is to recruit students to various rural communities. The hope is that if they have the opportunity to train here, they will stay in the area after they graduate."

Students interested in the program go through a selection process in order to be given the opportunity to participate. Students must write essays of interest and conduct an interview as part of the selection process.

There are high hopes for the program to succeed, Wendling said. MSU currently has another rural health program in place in the Upper Peninsula, which has been been successful in the 40 years it has been in place. According to Wendling, 30 percent of the students who participate in the program stay in the UP to pursue their medical career.

This year, each hospital has one student participating in the program. Wendling noted that while they hope to increase this to two students next year, the plan is not to go above two students per year. The program will likely expand to hospitals in mid-Michigan and thumb area of the state. Eventually, the goal is to have 12 medical students at a time in various rural health communities in northern Michigan.

"So far, the program is going really well," she said. "The students are very happy and reporting back that they are getting to experience patient cases and procedures that they wouldn't ordinarily be able to be involved in. The communities they've been placed in have been extremely welcoming, as well, which I think has been a big factor of success."

Part of the program involves just that: community involvement. As part of their training, students are required to work closely with hospital administrators, the public health director and the local chamber of commerce where they learn about the community as a whole.

Wendling noted the program is not only beneficial to the students, but the hospitals and community.

"There is definitely an economic advantage to having these young professionals working and living in the community," Wendling said. "In the long term, however, by having these students live in this community for two years, there is more of a chance that they will choose to stay, and from a retention standpoint at the hospital, that is a good thing."

"Additionally, having these students in the medical community is good for the physicians already working there," she continued. "When you're teaching, it forces you to be at the top of your game and answer challenging questions from that student."

Reezie DeVet, out-going president and chief executive officer of McLaren Northern Michigan, agreed.

"Generally, having students here keeps us up to date and their insight and innovation adds to helping us get charged up, too," DeVet said. "The programs these students are involved in are on the cutting edge of medicine, so it keeps us fresh, too."

DeVet also noted she hopes this program will help to retain physicians in northern Michigan in the future.

"There is definitely a growing shortage of primary care providers here, and if we can formulate a relationship with these students early on, hopefully they'll consider coming here as they finish their medical training. As a major employer in the area, we feel it's very important to try to keep people here."

"We're excited to have the opportunity to introduce new physicians to the community," DeVet continued. "We're very proud to be part of a program like this."

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