Med Students on the Rural Track

For 16 years, the University of Colorado’s (CU) School of Medicine has offered the “Rural Track”—an elective option for medical students interested in living and working in rural communities. Initially the program offered a week-long rural immersion and two to three months of experience in a rural hospital or clinic. However, in 2021, a change in the medical school’s curriculum and a strong record of success allowed Program Director Dr. Mark Deutchman, MD, to transition the Rural Track from an elective to a core program at CU.

“The Rural Track was founded to attract, admit and support students interested in rural practice,” said Deutchman. “Most of our students have grown up in or have strong ties to rural communities, so that connection is already there. Our goal is not to convince anyone to enter rural practice, but to give those with the desire the mentoring and guidance they need to pursue rural medicine.”

Approximately 50 percent of graduates from CU’s Rural Program choose to stay in rural practice.

Admission to the program is extremely competitive. Those selected (approximately 10% of each year’s medical school class) must meet rigorous academic standards and demonstrate a convincing interest in future rural life.

“Being a rural practitioner means engaging in the community beyond the walls of the medical facility,” said Deutchman. “Our students see their patients in the grocery store. They work alongside them as members of rural fi re departments. Through our program, they are not only getting the foundational, core clinical experience they need to practice medicine, they are also making lifelong connections and learning firsthand what professional, community and personal life is like in a rural area.”

Over the years, Deutchman and the team at CU have developed strong ties to the medical community in rural Colorado. However, the transition from a short-term elective to an entire year of core curriculum required a higher level of commitment from the university’s rural partners.

Out of approximately 160 U.S. medical schools, only 30 have programs like the University of Colorado School of Medicine’s “Rural Program”

“We’re developing the best clinical experience we can possibly get, so we need partners who are interested and willing to teach all the things we need to cover,” said Deutchman. “Fortunately, our rural partners recognize the real value of these students. They can go to any agency and fi nd a warm body who will come to their town for a year or two, but we are providing people who really want to live and work there for the long term. It’s a great pipeline for recruitment.”

The success of CU’s Rural Program is being recognized nationally. Data shows that participants are gaining as much or more clinical experience as students who study in the city, seeing higher numbers of patients and becoming more deeply engaged in the patient care process. And while there is no requirement that graduates remain in rural communities, approximately 50% choose to stay in rural practice.

“Our long-term goal is to get as many of our graduates as possible into rural practice,” said Deutchman. “But even those who don’t end up in a rural community will have a much better understanding of the rural patients who come to see them in the city. They will appreciate that these patients may have driven several hours just to get to them.”

“A common characteristic of rural communities is that people wear many hats,” said Program Director Mark Deutchman. “It’s one of the reasons so many of our graduates choose family or general medicine.”

For the past five years, CoBank has been offering scholarships for students in the Rural Program. Scholarship recipient Khyla Burrows graduated in May 2021 and has been accepted into a residency program in Sacramento, but her goal is to return to rural Colorado.

“Growing up in Winter Park, Colorado, I have long known I wanted to live and serve as a physician in a rural area,” said Burrows. “A deep sense of community and building longitudinal relationships with patients and their families inspires me to practice in a rural town.”

“We are deeply grateful to CoBank for its support of the Rural Program,” said Deutchman. “With CoBank’s support our students will expand access to family medicine and specialty care to some of the most underserved regions in Colorado and across the country. It is a strong demonstration of the bank’s commitment to the health and vibrancy of rural communities.”

This story was originally published in the CoBank 2021 Corporate Social Responsibility Report.