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Medical students share results of local community health projects

Third-year medical students in the University of Minnesota's Rural Physician Associate Program share the results of a community health project in Willmar. From right are Amanda Carlson, Dustin Sperr, Mikal Nelson and Sancia Ferguson, who put together a medical career education module for high school students in Willmar and New London-Spicer. Tribune photo by Anne Polta

WILLMAR -- Working alongside doctors in Willmar and New London, third-year medical students Amanda Carlson, Sancia Ferguson, Mikal Nelson and Dustin Sperr could see the impact of the rural physician shortage.

They saw patients waiting longer for appointments. They saw their preceptors working harder to keep up with the double demands of teaching and caring for patients.

So when it was time for them to choose a community research project for their nine-month rural rotation, they decided to create a curriculum introducing high school students to careers in medicine.

The class module was piloted in Willmar in March and was introduced at the end of April at New London-Spicer.

Eleventh- and 12th-graders at Willmar High School learned about the path to becoming a doctor and tried their hand at mock suturing and using a stethoscope.

"I think we were really successful in getting people interested," Ferguson said.

The new curriculum is among six community health projects being carried out in the region this year by third-year medical students in the Rural Physician Associate Program at the University of Minnesota in Duluth and the Twin Cities.

Altogether, 47 students -- nine in southwestern Minnesota -- are spending nine months living and working in rural communities across the state, gaining experience in what it's like to practice medicine in a rural setting.

Community health projects, which require the students to not only assess a local need but to research it and identify solutions as well, add a valuable dimension to this experience, said Gwen Halaas of the medical school's faculty.

"The RPAP program has a specific purpose in teaching students to be rural doctors," she said. "One of the most important aspects of being a family doctor is community health. ... The community is your patient as well."

Medical school faculty heard the results of their students' community work at a day-long series of presentations recently in Willmar.

In towns like New Ulm, Pipestone and Luverne, students tackled projects ranging from childhood obesity to preventive dental care. In Redwood Falls, medical student Dave Danielson undertook research on increasing senior citizens' awareness and knowledge of health-related resources in their community.

Jennifer Kuyava, who has been doing her RPAP rotation in Olivia, got involved in a rural palliative care initiative. Palliative care is focused on relief of pain and other symptoms of serious illness.

Her role was to educate Olivia-area providers on palliative care concepts and obtain their feedback on how a palliative care program might work in Renville County.

One of the things she learned: Rural doctors and nurses see themselves as already offering palliative care and aren't necessarily eager to embrace the addition of another program.

This finding, which has implications for other rural palliative care efforts, suggests these programs should be designed with specific community needs in mind, Kuyava said.

"You really have to listen to your providers and nurses," she said.

Carlson, Ferguson and Sperr, who are training in Willmar, and Nelson, who is in New London, pulled together information and resources from organizations such as Rice Memorial Hospital, Affiliated Community Medical Centers, Family Practice Medical Center and the Southern Minnesota Area Health Education Center, as they developed their career education module.

When they surveyed students after the pilot session in Willmar, about one-third indicated at least some level of interest in a medical career.

"It was surprising to me a lot of students didn't really realize there was such a great need," Ferguson said.

Nelson said the curriculum could potentially be expanded to more schools to reach more students.

Although it's hard to measure the direct influence of such a program, it's one more way of encouraging interest and inviting young people to consider a career in the health professions, he said. "There've been many steps along the way that kind of push us that way."

Kathy Brooks, director of the Rural Physician Associate Program, said the community health projects give the medical students a chance to start seeing themselves as leaders, a role they'll be expected to take once they complete their training.

"It's part of their identity formation," she said.

Halaas also sees it as a way of repaying rural communities for hosting medical students for part of their training.

"The community gives so much time and effort," she said. "I really wanted the students to have an opportunity to give back to the community."