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Focus on Rural Health

A Recipe for Success

By Stacy Kusler on

Rural health interest group board members
Rural Health Interest Group Board Members
Front, left to right, Janet Julson, MS II, Galchutt, N.D.; Heidi Johnson MS I, San Diego, Calif.; and Ashlyn Kamrath MS I, Lakota, N.D. Back, left to right, President Dylan Torgerson, MS II, Kindred, N.D.; Hannah Schradick, MS II, Wahpeton, N.D.; John (Jack) Stacy, MS I, Cheyenne, Wyo.; and Mylan Panteah, MS II, Santa Fe, N.M.

A recipe for success: Mix together one heaping cup of a medical school's mission to serve its state's rural communities, a tablespoon of driven medical students with an interest and loyalty to rural areas, and a pinch of hearing about the right opportunity at the right time. Knead and shape as needed for a student-led group focused on a healthy future for rural North Dakotans. Well, at least that's how it came together for the Rural Health Interest Group (RHIG) here at the University of North Dakota School of Medicine & Health Sciences.

Since the University of North Dakota School of Medicine & Health Sciences (UND SMHS) has been in existence, the goal has been to improve the quality of life for North Dakotans through well-trained physicians and other health professionals. One way to do that is by attracting rural-focused students to the medical school. One of those students was Samantha (Dusek) Kiedrowski, a native of Grafton, North Dakota.

In the spring of 2015, Kiedrowski, a then third-year medical student at the UND SMHS, heard about an opportunity through the Center for Rural Health for a medical student to attend the National Rural Health Association (NRHA) annual conference in Philadelphia. The NRHA had established a Student Constituency Group made up of student members who come together to dialogue about rural-health-related issues, including workforce and policy. The North Dakota Rural Health Association (NDRHA), an advocacy organization focused on improving the health status of rural North Dakotans, was looking to support a student to attend and represent our state in this capacity. They put a call out for volunteers through the Center for Rural Health and Kiedrowski responded.

"I honestly had never heard of the NRHA before, so when the conference came up and they needed a representative, I jumped on it," Kiedrowski said. "I had been essentially oblivious to what was going on nationally in healthcare policy as it pertained to rural health. The conference definitely opened my eyes to changes occurring on a national and state level that will most definitely affect my job in a few short years."

What Kiedrowski learned at the conference made her wonder if any of her fellow classmates at UND would be interested in any of the same information. That's how she formed the UND chapter of the NRHA Student Constituency Group called the Rural Health Interest Group (RHIG). The next fall, as Kiedrowski began her fourth and final year at the SMHS, she wanted to get the first-year medical students interested so as to not lose momentum because of her busy schedule, and for the group to have a chance at continuing after she graduated. She held an informational meeting where she talked about her experience at the conference and what there is to gain from being connected to the NRHA Student Constituency Group. Over 60 medical students attended and, that same day, RHIG officers were elected and the group had officially formed.

I decided on the UND SMHS because of their strong commitment to rural medicine.

"My major interest in rural medicine stems from my overall goal of practicing as a physician on my reservation in New Mexico, which is the Navajo Nation," says RHIG board member and second-year medical student Mylan Panteah. "I decided on the UND SMHS because of their strong commitment to rural medicine, and when I met with Sam [Kiedrowski], I was excited she was starting the RHIG. There is a strong need for physicians within [rural] areas, so our group hopes to draw attention to this and come up with ways to address it."

RHIG President Dylan Torgerson agrees. "My main goal for members of this group is to recognize and respect the importance of rural medicine, in North Dakota as well as throughout the country. I know rural is not exactly for everyone, and it's rare that someone 100 percent wants to pursue a career in a rural field from the start. However, by informing them and educating them on the subject, perhaps a few more will consider, or at least think about, a career in rural medicine."

Torgerson and Panteah, along with their fellow RHIG leaders, have a similar vision for the current group of around 30 students. They want to expose members of the group to rural practice settings through shadowing opportunities (something that first- and second-year students normally don't have exposure to). They also hope to introduce a yearly skills lab with other student interest groups in various healthcare disciplines on campus, which is an idea that stemmed from this year's Student Constituency Group meeting at the NRHA annual conference in May of 2016, which both Torgerson and Panteah were able to attend with support from the NDRHA. Other topics that members expressed interest in learning more about are employment contracts, which the Center for Rural Health has presented information on already, telemedicine, and the Indian Health Service. The group would also like to expand RHIG to include students from other health professions on campus.

"My hope for the Rural Health Interest Group, in short, would be to inform my classmates of the importance and opportunities in rural medicine. I can only hope that it continues from class to class, grows in size, and begins to have a large presence in the school," Torgerson said. And while a few more ingredients may be added to this "recipe," it will indeed continue. In September, another informational meeting was held to introduce the new first-year medical students to the RHIG. Three first-year medical students were elected to join the existing board of directors to continue the work that has been started. We look forward to seeing more great rural-focused things from the RHIG in the future.

This article originally appeared in the Holiday 2016 issue of North Dakota Medicine.

Stacy Kusler Stacy Kusler is the connection between rural healthcare facilities in North Dakota and qualified health professional job seekers. As the workforce specialist, she assists rural facilities to attract medical providers and other health professionals to their communities by sharing job opportunities. Through her position, Stacy is working to reduce the healthcare workforce shortages throughout the state.