Written by Angie LaFlamme and Bridget Hart, National Rural Health Resource Center. This content originally appeared on the 3RNet website.
The 3RNet’s mission is to connect health care professionals searching for jobs in rural or underserved areas with health care facilities. They strive to find the right job for professionals in areas where they will live and work comfortably. Some health care professionals entering the workforce have come from large, urban areas and have never practiced in a rural community. But, for University of Minnesota medical students participating in the Rural Physician Associate Program (RPAP), this isn’t the case.
RPAP is a nine-month, community-based educational experience for third-year medical students. Not only does it allow them to train in rural communities, RPAP students and their families get to experience all aspects of rural community life by living in their host towns during the training period.
“RPAP was one of the most valuable experiences of my training,” said Maren Anderson, who participated in RPAP in fall 2016. “I've always felt I would be best served by training in the environment I plan to work in and for me that is rural Minnesota. I knew I was in the right place when we walked down the hallway of physician offices and they pointed at nearly every door, identifying that physician as either a University of Minnesota graduate, RPAP alumnus, or both. I was the only medical student there which gave me the benefit of the undivided attention of not just one preceptor or attending, but every practitioner I came into contact with.”
RPAP students experience hands-on learning as they care for patients of all ages. They learn clinical medicine, procedures, community health, and the business of medicine. Students experience the full spectrum of rural medical care as they follow patients and their families through a disease process or pregnancy. “In the course of a day I might start the morning with an early surgery or c-section, then start clinic, possibly see a patient or two in urgent care, get called to the ER to sew up a laceration, finish out clinic and write my notes, visit a patient or two on inpatient, and then wrap up the day with a delivery,” said Maren of her RPAP experience.
“I truly felt like a member of the team and got to know my patients and my fellow health workers. I felt so incredibly valued and supported during my time there. I also felt like I became a part of the community in a way that I haven't found since moving out of my hometown,” said Maren. “My official preceptor would have me over to his house for dinner regularly and I helped his family shear sheep to get ready for the fair. I joined a church choir there and a number of choir members became my patients, eagerly announcing to me during practice, ‘I'm coming to visit you next week!’”
From populations ranging from 350 to 30,000, over 110 Minnesota communities have participated in the program as teaching sites with a majority having at least one RPAP alum. Practices vary from small family medicine clinics to large multi-specialty outpatient centers, and hospitals ranging in size from 15 to 140 beds. Students see patients in clinics, hospitals, emergency rooms, nursing homes, hospice, at home, and in the community. Each student is the only student in a community and therefore has a greater opportunity to gain hands-on experience in a variety of procedures and specialties.
“When the Minnesota legislature sought a solution to the need for more rural physicians – particularly Family Physicians – in the late 1960’s, they were wonderfully wise to fund the establishment of the University of Minnesota Medical School’s Duluth campus program and the Rural Physicians Associate Program,” said Jim Boulger, Ph.D., Distinguished University Teaching Professor from University of Minnesota Medical School. Since RPAP’s inception in 1971, over 1,300 students have participated in the program, resulting in two out of three former students practicing in Minnesota, two out of three practicing in rural locations, and four out of five practicing primary care.
Statistics show that health care professionals with an educational background in rural areas are more likely to practice in these areas once they enter the workforce. “These programs have been extremely successful models for training our rural Minnesota medical workforce. Now having trained more family physicians – many of them RPAP graduates - than any other medical school in the United States, the University is a proud partner with greater Minnesota in providing care for all of us,” quoted Dr. Boulger.
Former RPAP student Maren states, “RPAP solidified my faith in my decision to become a rural physician because, for the first time since starting medical school, I felt that I actually understood what it means to be a rural doctor and how that shapes your life—and now I can't imagine wanting to do anything else.”
University of Minnesota, Duluth and Twin Cities Campus’ medical students with an interest in family medicine, primary care, or rural medicine specialties are strongly encouraged to apply to the Rural Physician Associate Program. Visit the RPAP website to learn more about the Rural Physician Associate Program, or if you have interest in supporting the Program.
The National Rural Health Resource Center (The Center) is a nonprofit organization dedicated to sustaining and improving health care in rural communities. Rural Health Innovations, LLC is a subsidiary of the National Rural Health Resource Center.