Minneapolis, MN

Rural Physicians: A Story from the University of Minnesota Medical School

Abdi Isaaq

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MINNEAPOLIS, MN - In some rural areas, even in an emergency, a physician may be hours away. While 20% of Americans reside in rural areas, only 11% of physicians operate there, and 3/5 of nationally designated health professional shortage areas are rural. Attracting the next generation of rural doctors is crucial.

For Cassidy Peterson, the Rural Physician Associate Program (RPAP) is a unique nine-month community-based training program that places third-year medical students in rural towns around Minnesota and western Wisconsin. It just graduated its 50th class.

"I grew up in a small town in North Dakota, so I've always wanted to practice rural because that's where I could see myself living in the future," said Cassidy, a third-year medical student at the University of Minnesota.

Since RPAP's founding, over 122 Minnesota communities have welcomed medical students as they relocated to their training location. Cassidy, Kaitlyn, and Paige were transferred to Staples, Minnesota, a 3,000-person hamlet.

"One of the things the program prides itself on is the integration of the students into the community," Kaitlyn remarked.

Staples has long sponsored RPAP and hosted students. Some of them returned to the neighborhood after their medical careers. The clinical staff, patients, and physicians are used to the presence of students, making the setting more welcoming.

"The preceptors are wonderful, and a lot of them are RPAP graduates themselves," Paige remarked. "They know what to expect and they're willing to let you take more responsibility as you progress through your training."

RPAP now offers 34 teaching sites and 61 preceptors, most of whom are program graduates.

"There are so many students who have gone back to practice at their RPAP site because it's such an impactful experience," Cassidy said. "It gives you physicians to look up to and they really help you develop your skills and confidence throughout the duration of the program."

The epidemic gave all three graduates more hands-on experience than some of their urban peers had from virtual rotations. Students visited hospitals, clinics, and emergency rooms. They also felt more autonomy as their skill level increased.

"No matter where students end up, I still believe RPAP will be a valuable experience," Cassidy said. "RPAP prepares students to be better future physicians and that is its true legacy."

RPAP has graduated around 1600 students in 50 years. Alumni practice in Minnesota, with over 40% in rural areas and 75% in primary care.

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