Rural Physicians Mentoring UA Medical Students
The program encourages health professionals to practice primary care in rural areas. The four to six-week mentorships run through Aug. 6.

By Jean Spinelli, Arizona Health Sciences Center
June 28, 2010

Physicians in Arizona's rural communities this summer are volunteering to mentor medical students from the University of Arizona College of Medicine.

The physicians are faculty members in the UA College of Medicine's Rural Health Professions Program, or RHPP, established in 1997 by the Arizona Legislature to encourage medical school graduates to practice medicine in rural communities.

For four to six weeks in June and July, the physicians volunteer as preceptors – or mentors – to UA medical students between their first and second years of medical school. The students work with the physicians at their practice sites and live in the communities.

Students are matched with rural physician-preceptors based on medical specialty interest and community preference. Physician specialties include family practice, pediatrics, internal medicine, obstetrics and gynecology and surgery.

Forty-two rural communities are participating in RHPP, and additional sites will be selected throughout the state. Communities hosting students this summer include Benson, Bisbee, Flagstaff, Payson, Polacca, Prescott, Queen Creek, Show Low, Sierra Vista, Snowflake, Springerville, Tuba City, Wickenburg and Yuma.

Students will continue to work with their preceptors over the course of their three remaining years of medical training, returning to the rural communities in their third and fourth years.

"This program helps nurture students' interest in a rural practice," said Carol Galper, assistant dean for medical student education with the UA College of Medicine.

"Many of the students grew up in rural towns in Arizona and have a desire to practice in small communities, perhaps even returning to their hometowns," she said. "Their RHPP experiences help them understand the unique healthcare needs of rural populations as well as strategies to address these needs, and help them decide about where they want to practice in the future."

By working side-by-side with a physician – consulting with patients, discussing lab results, helping diagnose childhood ailments and attending surgeries – students learn about the unique healthcare needs of rural populations and how to meet them.

By returning to the same community during each year of medical school, students learn to appreciate the area's culture and community character and begin to experience the lifestyle of rural residents.

This year, 11 students attending the UA College of Medicine in Tucson and six students attending the UA College of Medicine – Phoenix were selected for RHPP, using a combination of funds from the Arizona Area Health Education Centers (the Arizona AHEC Program) and the state of Arizona.

"With the expansion of the medical school to include the Phoenix campus, AHEC funding enables us to provide RHPP opportunities to Phoenix-based students as well," Galper said.

RHPP students receive intensive preparation, including a course, "Issues in Rural Health," covering healthcare and access-to-care issues, challenges of rural practice, referral needs, the impact of poverty and lack of healthcare, environmental health concerns, the influence of culture and the role of physicians in rural communities, as well as topics not taught until their second-year curriculum. This helps bring them up-to-speed and allows them to be well prepared for their initial rural rotation.

RHPP students learn to use telemedicine technology in communities linked to the Arizona Telemedicine Program, or ATP, a healthcare telecommunications network that allows rural physicians and patients to have real-time online medical consultations with specialists at the UA College of Medicine in Tucson.

The system also allows rural physician-preceptors and their students to attend grand rounds lectures "virtually" at the UA College of Medicine. The RHPP course is teleconferenced between Tucson and Phoenix, with instruction originating alternately in Tucson and Phoenix.

Rural physician-preceptors enhance their teaching skills by attending faculty development and continuing medical education programs conducted by the UA College of Medicine.

To minimize disruption of the physicians' medical practices, the programs are offered regionally as well as by video links provided by ATP to the UA College of Medicine and the Regional Behavioral Health Authority sites of the Arizona Department of Health Services/Division of Behavioral Health Service Services.

RHPP students develop long-term relationships with their rural physician-preceptors, who act as medical and career counselors, helping the students make informed choices when they decide where they will practice medicine.

Upon graduation, RHPP students are more likely to select primary care specialties than their classmates: 77 percent versus 59 percent of UA College of Medicine graduates.

"We now have other graduates throughout the state, in places like Queen Creek, Yuma, Pinetop, Fort Mohave, Camp Verde, Flagstaff, Safford, Whiteriver, Tuba City and Prescott, with more graduates returning each year," Galper said. "It is exciting to see these physicians return to Arizona and to have them teach our RHPP students. RHPP has come full circle."

For more information about RHPP, visit http://omse.medicine.arizona.edu/educational-programs/rhpp.

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Jean Spinelli

Arizona Health Sciences Center

520-626-7301

jspinell@email.arizona.edu