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A window into small-town medicine

Aspiring health professionals spend week immersed in rural life

Studies show one in five Americans live in rural areas, but only one of every 10 graduating medical students ultimately ends up practicing in small towns.

A group of those aspiring doctors, physician assistants, pharmacists and nurses examined multiple aspects of small town life last week in Cortez. Sponsored by the University of Colorado’s School of Medicine and College of Nursing, the week-long rural immersion program aims to fill widespread health care shortages across rural communities in Colorado.

“There’s a big need for rural doctors,” said program director Mark Deutchman, M.D.

In addition, the project also enables participating students an opportunity to determine whether they could tolerate living in a small town.

Tom Clagett, an incoming first year medical student, and his wife, Mindy, who also participated in the program, said they discovered “unique and attractive” qualities of the area. They were most impressed with the vast community-mindedness found across Cortez.

“There’s so many nice places around the state that are pretty, but they don’t have a lot of heart,” said Tom Clagett. “I’m much more drawn to an area with a cultural heart like Cortez.”

Mindy Clagett reiterated her husband’s sentiment, saying, “I believe (Cortez) will celebrate another victory down the road.

“People here have proven they are very effective when working together.”

Assigned to teams of three and four, the group of 20 students examined such topics as community health care, politics, natural resources, recreational opportunities, non-profit organizations, education and the economy. Throughout the week, students found aspects of small-town life intriguing, such as one local doctor who sometimes barters care for eggs, but the greatest shock involved the lack of funding available for patient care.

On a trek to Indian Health Services in Shiprock, one group of students said they learned that tribal members receive less than $1,500 in annual health care compared to state inmates who receive more than $6,000 in annual care.

That insight into the nuances and challenges of rural medical practice helped inspire nursing student Jennifer Hutchison. Hutchison said she was raised in an urban environment, but following the rural immersion program said she could envision living in small town with her family.

“I had an amazing week,” Hutchison said. “If we could find a community with just a fraction of how great Cortez seemed to be, then I can’t imagine how happy we’d be there.”

Approximately 150 students have participated in CU’s highly selective Rural Track Program since its inception in 2005. The medical school alone had 370 applicants to fill 20 spots this year.

“We have an abundance of people who are interested in the program,” Deutchman said. “We even now have people applying to our medical school, because of the rural track program.

All but 12 of Colorado’s 64 counties are listed as full or partial Primary Care Health Professional Shortage Areas, Deutchman said.