A looming national shortage of physicians to serve rural communities is being confronted head on through a new strategic partnership of Buena Vista University (BVU) and Buena Vista Regional Medical Center (BVRMC).
They have developed a program called "Undergraduate Rural Medicine Education and Development" (URMED). The program offers internships during January at BVRMC for two BVU pre-med students who have expressed interest in practicing rural medicine.
The program also creates opportunities for other students to explore their interest in health care careers including medical practice, physical therapy, radiology, optometry and pharmacy.
The goal is to encourage the BVU students to pursue careers in rural medicine and specifically to motivate them to consider returning to Storm Lake for careers, says Dr. Richard Lampe, professor of biology, who helped spearhead the development of this program along with faculty colleagues and BVRMC staff. Lampe is also a member of the BVRMC Board of Trustees.
One of the benefits is a $3,000 stipend to the interns, which can be used to help defray expenses for applying to medical schools and admission tests, says Lampe. BVU and BVRMC share in funding stipends. Private donations make the students funds possible.
"The unique element in this program is that BVRMC is courting future doctors and other health care professionals to return to have their career in Storm Lake," says Lampe. "Our investment in a stipend is unique in providing the students with financial assistance at a time when they need help with the costs of applying for medical school. No one else does that, and it is something that the students will likely appreciate and remember."
Five students applied and the selections were made in early November by a joint committee of BVU faculty and BVRMC staff. The students had to compete for the program by submitting an essay and three letters of recommendation.
The two BVU students selected for the inaugural URMED internships are Alyssa Hudnall, a junior biology major from Grand Island, Nebraska and Matt Nicholson, a junior biology major from Osage.
After growing up in a town of 300 people before her family moved to Grand Island, Alyssa has a real appreciation for rural medicine. "I think that people in rural areas deserve health care that is just as great as health care in urban areas," she comments. "I want to combat the misconceptions about rural medicine by being the best physician that I can be. Rural areas need interest from future physicians, like myself, who have this passion. I am really excited to get to learn more about BVRMC and to interact with everyone working there."
"I grew up in a community of only 3,500 people and I love living in a small town," says Matt. "I have wanted to be a doctor since I was very young, so practicing in a rural setting would be a great future for me. Small rural communities are in need of physicians and this internship will provide me with exposure and experience that will help me to decide in which area I would be most interested in practicing."
During the URMED January internships, the students will accompany different physicians and other medical professionals to experience what it is like to work daily with patients in the hospital, in surgery and the emergency room, as well as in a clinic setting. They will also have the opportunity to attend lectures and continuing education programs held for physicians at BVRMC.
There will also be two formal dinners during the year for all of BVU's pre-med students to meet with Brad Strader, director of the Buena Vista Regional Healthcare Foundation and the physician recruiter for BVRMC. The dinners will have a guest speaker, typically a student in medical school, residency, or a physician already in practice who can provide the BVU students with their perspectives on medicine and answer questions.
While the BVU students who intern at BVRMC have no obligation to return to practice in Storm Lake, BVRMC staff and the university's science faculty will continue to maintain contact with them throughout their medical education and into careers.
Physician recruitment for BVRMC is the initial focus for the launch of the URMED program, Lampe says, but it could also be expanded in the future to additional health care organizations, including other area hospitals, as well as to other health care professions of interest to BVU students, such as physical therapy.
"The URMED program is an outstanding example of how Buena Vista University works collaboratively with the Storm Lake community to improve the well-being and quality of life for its residents," says BVU President Fred Moore. "This program truly benefits all parties involved - our students, the community and the university."
The program dovetails with BVRMC's approach to recruiting of new physicians to Storm Lake, says CEO Todd Hudspeth. "The most common method of recruiting physicians is to use a recruiting firm," he explains. "However, we have decided to take a long-term view of recruiting that starts at the undergraduate level, and even at the high school level if we know of a student's career plans. Our theory is that it is easier to recruit and retain an individual who grew up in this area, rather than someone from California or elsewhere."
The medical center has started to identify undergraduate students, students in medical school and residents who have some tie to northwest Iowa - some eight to 10 years out from starting their career - in hopes of luring them back to the area.
"Nationally, the demand for physicians is growing faster than the supply," notes Hudspeth. "In rural America, we see a maldistribution of physicians because urban areas are more attractive to both the physician and their spouse. This makes recruiting physicians to a rural community very challenging. Many rural hospitals are one or two physician retirements from a crisis."
Though BVRMC is in a better position than most rural hospitals, planning for long-term needs is essential in light of a graying medical community, says Hudspeth. In Storm Lake, one physician recently retired and two more will probably retire within the next three to four years, as well as another four within 10 years. The medical specialties being targeted for recruitment by BVRMC are family practice, psychiatry and orthopedic surgery.
"We are fortunate to have a new family practice physician coming in March 2009," says Hudspeth. "He was a medical school classmate of our new general surgeon who is a native of Storm Lake. Another family practice physician, a native of the Lake View area, is completing his residency in Sioux City next July and will start here in August."
The BVU professors and BVRMC staff introduced the concept for the URMED program to
18 pre-professional students last April at a dinner and a tour of the BVRMC facilities. "I think the students were very impressed with the facilities and services that BVRMC has to offer," says Lampe.
The URMED program comes at a time when the number of pre-med students at BVU, and those being accepted to medical school, has been increasing. In a typical year, one or two would go to medical school. This year, seven students have applied and five of those have already been accepted to multiple programs.
Several factors are contributing to the growing interest in BVU's pre-med program, says Dr. Brian Lenzmeier, assistant professor of biology who also helps coordinate URMED. These factors include the new Estelle Siebens Science Center, a new curriculum in biology that requires research, and the student-driven creation of a pre-professional club that has been instrumental in establishing a pre-medical academic and social culture. "The URMED program will be attractive to any prospective students who have an interest in practicing rural medicine, making BVU the school of choice for many of those high school and transfer students," he notes.
A ceremony will be held at BVRMC for Alyssa and Matt on Jan. 5 as they begin their internships.