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Wednesday Jul 30, 2014

Keeping It Real: Preceptorship Exposes Students to Importance of Rural Family Medicine

Roughly 20 percent of Americans live in rural areas, but only 11 percent of U.S. physicians live in those same communities. In fact, the Health Services and Resources Administration (HRSA) has designated more than 6,000 Health Professional Shortage Areas for primary care, and 67 percent of those are in nonurban areas. According to HRSA, it would take 17,000 additional primary care health professionals to achieve a ratio of one clinician per 2,000 patients in these locations.

So, how do we convince more medical students to first choose family medicine and then practice it in the places that need them the most?

I recently had the opportunity to talk to students during the Appalachian Preceptorship, which exposes students from around the nation to rural family medicine in Tennessee. Ten students from seven medical schools participated in the four-week program.

Let them experience it first-hand.

Nearly 30 years ago, Forrest Lang, M.D., retired vice chair of the Department of Family Medicine at East Tennessee State University (ETSU's) Quillen College of Medicine in Johnson City, created the Appalachian Preceptorship to introduce students to rural family medicine in a highly relevant and culturally sensitive way. Since then, hundreds of medical students from all over the country have come to Tennessee to experience first-hand the delivery of primary care in Appalachia.

It is critical that we find ways to connect with medical students early in their first and second years, and this year all of the students participating in the program were sophomores. We know that in the first 18 years of the program, more than 80 percent of the students who participated matched to residencies in primary care, including 60 percent who matched to family medicine programs.

Students are called to medicine to help people, and there is no better way to do so than practicing family medicine in rural, underserved America. In the Appalachian Preceptorship, students participate in one week of didactic sessions at ETSU before spending three weeks with a physician practicing in a rural Appalachian community.

These dedicated family physicians allow students to become part of their practices, and the students see patients, participate in the diagnosis and management of acute and chronic diseases, practice preventive medicine, and enjoy a wealth of other experiences.  

The experience is invaluable for both the students and the preceptors. In fact, we dedicate significant resources at ETSU to connecting with our preceptors throughout the year, and we devote a special weekend session to allowing them to offer feedback on our educational methods and identify and address the resources they need.  

Another key aspect of this program is the opportunity it gives us to show students that it is possible to not only survive but to thrive in small-town practices. Some of the preceptors are from individual physician practices, and most of the rest belong to small groups. The students are able to experience how health care is provided in these communities and to really understand the nature of physician-patient relationships. In addition, each of these preceptors and the communities in which they work are great examples of different types of patient-centered medical homes. This reinforces to the students that team-based care is not about having everyone located under the same roof; but rather the resources that are available within the community to care for its residents.

Another advantage of this process has been the chance it offers to expose students from all over the country to our school's residency programs. Almost every year, students who have participated in the preceptorship interview with at least one of our three family medicine residency programs. These are outstanding students, and we are frequently blessed that at least one of them matches with us. This is important because data from the Robert Graham Center for Policy Studies in Family Medicine and Primary Care indicate that up to 75 percent of physicians will practice within 100 miles of their residency. In this way, the ETSU programs are consistently fulfilling their mission to provide rural family physicians for our patients.  

On a personal note, I had the privilege of talking with students about a number of issues, including the importance of herbal medicine in Appalachian culture, bedside manner and patient-centered communication. I encourage each of you to consider how you can be a part of such a process in your community.

If you are academician, are there ways you could create student or even resident experiences that can mirror some of these goals of exposing students to underserved areas?  If you are in private practice, is there a school or residency in your area that you could connect with to create a unique and transformative experience for learners?

Although we struggle nationally with physician pipeline issues, this is how we can walk our talk and directly influence students. This is a great opportunity to remember that the root word of doctor is docere -- to teach!  

Reid Blackwelder, M.D., is president of the AAFP.

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The opinions and views expressed here are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent or reflect the opinions and views of the American Academy of Family Physicians. This blog is not intended to provide medical, financial, or legal advice. All comments are moderated and will be removed if they violate our Terms of Use.