As the state continues to experience shortages in small-town doctors, the University of Minnesota’s Rural Physician Associate Program (RPAP) remains a key recruitment tool in attracting medical students considering practice in rural areas.
Just ask Amber Vick, M.D., an RPAP participant and 2005 graduate of the University of Minnesota Medical School. Like many RPAP students, Vick knew she wanted to practice medicine in a smaller town.
“The program allowed me to see what it was like to live in a small community and see the important relationships and friendships that a physician can have with their patients,” said Vick.
Vick completed her RPAP in Lake City, Minn., and now serves as a physician in New London, Minn. As of the last census, New London was home to 1,066 people.
Stacy Longnecker, M.D., an alumnus of the program, said RPAP allowed her to work one-on-one with doctors and gain more hands-on experience than their counterparts rotating at large hospitals.
“As a med student, I wasn’t going to get the direct experience I wanted having to look over everyone else’s shoulders,” said Longnecker on doing rotations in a larger city. “At my RPAP site, I was assisting on everything and doing procedures myself.”
Laura Ford-Nathan, M.D., a 2010 University graduate enjoyed the intricacies of small-town, family practice medicine. In addition to establishing real relationships with patients, she also got the experience she needed to become a complete physician.
“I would run into patients everywhere—at the grocery store, the library, the gym,” she said. “But I also assisted in the delivery of 37 babies, performed nearly 20 intubations, and ran lab work for patients.”
Ford-Nathan completed her RPAP in Glencoe, Minn., a town with a population just over 5,000.
Meeting the needs of rural Minnesotans
Now in it its 40th year of existence, RPAP enrolls an average of 33 participants each year. The program has graduated more than 1,200 students since its inception.
As of 2010, 1003 RPAP alums are currently in practice, with nearly 700 RPAP graduates practicing in rural areas.
During the nine-month program, RPAP students work directly with physicians, or “preceptors,” and become accustomed to the family practice style of medicine. Participants learn the full spectrum of medicine; in small towns, a doctor will see all kinds of patients and cases, ranging from pediatrics to geriatrics, obstetrics to cardiovascular disease.
Alongside their practice, students must also meet a set of requirements. They complete assignments in clerkships, participate in online discussions, and take standardized exams.
Additionally, students pioneer a community health assessment project in which they review health issues in their area and then create and implement a plan to help solve the problem. In some cities, this has resulted in weight loss challenges, improved dental care access, and education to elderly community members about how to prevent falls.
Students also maintain a close relationship with their preceptors, who monitor and give feedback during their RPAP experience. Many preceptors were RPAP students themselves, and they understand the importance of giving back to the program and community.
“Our community preceptors invest time and energy into students because they love their work and believe in it,” said RPAP director Kathleen Brooks, M.D., M.B.A., M.P.A., Brooks. “That’s their motivation.”
- Emily Jensen