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We need to bring Montana medical students home

by Jay Erickson
| November 20, 2022 12:00 AM

The Montana Department of Public Health and Human Resources reports that 43 of 56 counties in Montana are designated as primary care health professional shortage areas.

As a rural family physician and medical educator in Montana, I’ve seen and experienced the consequences of this shortage firsthand. Friends in the health profession have retired early or moved into a new industry. Patients may not always receive the best quality of care or may be barred from specialized treatment for several months, especially if they live in a rural or underserved area.

Nov. 17 marked National Rural Health Day, an opportunity to raise awareness about the rural health landscape and those who make up its fabric. It’s more apparent now than ever that we as Montana residents need to bring awareness and solutions to the manner in which rural healthcare is delivered, not just for ourselves but for younger generations.

To support our current population and the future of our state, we must create a physician workforce that has the skills, knowledge, and experience to meet Montana’s needs.

Connecting medical students with rural mentors, hospitals, and communities for a significant portion of their medical school training is crucial if we want to encourage students to not only study and practice medicine in rural areas, but return to Montana to do these things. Montanas medical school, Montana WWAMI, is the public medical school partnership between Montana State University and the University of Washington School of Medicine. Since the program began in 1973, Montana WWAMI has graduated 350 medical students who have since returned to the state to practice medicine.

Retaining and encouraging medical students to practice medicine in rural Montana is achieved through programs like Montana WWAMI’s Targeted Rural Underserved Track (TRUST) program. While some medical schools offer rural learning experiences, Montana WWAMI is the only U.S. public medical school that connects students with the same rural or underserved community throughout their three to four years of medical education.

As students learn the moving parts associated with rural medicine that is needed to create a sustainable and outstanding rural healthcare delivery system, they work directly with Montana patients, gaining hands-on knowledge year after year. In addition, becoming integrated with a rural community allows students to picture their careers as rural physicians and the benefits of returning to a rural community.

During these four years, students make deep connections with their mentors, patients, and the communities at large and often become integral members of the community. The long-term nature of the program enables students to cement close relationships and allows students to see the difference that outstanding healthcare delivery makes in the lives of their patients.

TRUST scholars like Dr. KayCee Gardner are prime examples of why Montana should provide opportunities for students to work in rural Montana communities during their schooling. Dr. Gardner grew up on a ranch outside of Broadus, and completed her TRUST experience in Lewistown, a town of about 6,000. Dr. Gardner then went on to complete her residency at the Montana Family Medicine Residency in Billings. During her residency, she completed her rural rotations back in Lewiston.

Dr. Gardner spent parts of seven years of her medical training practicing rural medicine in Lewistown. As a lifelong Montanan with training in Montana’s specific needs, Dr. Gardner is now able to quickly build relationships with patients and, therefore, provide better connected care. She is now working as a family medicine physician in Miles City, just over an hour from her hometown.

Increasing access to and quality of care should be a priority for all Montanans — citizens, policy makers, educators, and health practitioners alike. Montanas medical school, Montana WWAMI has demonstrated continued success not only training excellent physicians, but encouraging them to come home to practice. Programs like this are the reason why more and more Montana medical students are choosing to live and practice medicine in rural areas across Montana.

Dr. Jay Erickson is a practicing family physician in Columbia Falls and Whitefish, and an assistant clinical dean at Montana WWAMI. He has been teaching and practicing as a rural physician in Montana for 33 years.

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