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LAUREN HUGHES A medical student brings together peers from other fields to focus on rural health needs.

In summer 2008, 23 health sciences students from around the country convened at The University of Iowa for the first-ever Rural Health Scholars program, the brainchild of fourth-year UI medical student Lauren Hughes. She believes it’s the only program of its kind to bring together physician assistant, nurse practitioner, medical, and dental students to discuss health and safety issues, rural health policy, and health care workforce development.

“I am a student at Iowa, which has an interest in rural health. So, why not try doing something like this?” she says.

It all began when Hughes went to Washington, D.C., in 2007 to earn a master’s degree in public health from George Washington University. As she researched rural health policies and workforce development, she learned that the American Medical Student Association (AMSA) Foundation was keen to start a rural health training program. Hughes decided to propose an interdisciplinary program after she attended AMSA primary care training that united dental and medical students.

“There are so many health programs here on campus, and there really isn’t a lot of crosstalk. It was so valuable during the program this summer to sit across the table from students of various health disciplines,” says Hughes, who grew up on a farm south of Searsboro, Iowa.

The $13,000 that supported the program came from the National Association of Community Health Centers, the UI Office of the Provost, and the Carver College of Medicine and its Office of Student Affairs and Curriculum. AMSA and the College of Medicine hosted the event June 23-27.

Students attended lectures and panel discussions while picking up leadership skills in areas like advocacy and grant writing.

They also learned valuable lessons outside the classroom, whether from each other or during field trips. Through informal conversations, they discovered that rural areas are not homogenous.

Rural Iowa faces different issues than rural Wyoming or Tennessee, since the type of agriculture or industry differs in each region, Hughes says. Students who took part in the program—including a former Peace Corps volunteer to Malawi and a former organic farmer—also learned more about the mentalities and training methods behind each other’s disciplines.

Trips to other parts of eastern Iowa included visits to a farm in Morse, migrant-worker camps in Williamsburg and Conesville, and an Old Order Amish farm near Kalona. On these trips, students learned about the mechanisms of injury, how wounds can become contaminated, and the psychological and social issues relevant to rural communities.

“The value is not only that students are educated, but that they’re more aware of issues facing rural workers, which would be helpful for them should they choose to practice in rural areas or have referrals from providers in rural areas,” Hughes says.

She hopes the program’s graduates will spread what they’ve learned to other students at their schools, whether by organizing rural health symposiums, or hosting sessions or lunch briefings.

“The idea is that you train a few and hope that you’ll affect many,” she says.           

Right now, Hughes is laying groundwork for the program’s continuation, even though she’ll graduate in 2009, and has ideas on how it might evolve. It could take the form of a weeklong training program that would travel to other medical schools and locations. It could also grow to include community-based experiences around the state of Iowa.

Hughes hopes to practice family medicine some day, but also wants to help shape public policy. Through this program and future advocacy work, she aims to encourage others to practice in rural communities, which is less lucrative than working in urban areas; to raise awareness about the issues surrounding rural health care; and to encourage an interdisciplinary team approach to health science education.

“Rural health is important to me because I come from a rural area,” she says. “I see the challenges that rural populations face in accessing health care and the health disparities that exist for rural populations.”

Story by Po Li Loo; Photo by Tim Schoon

Oct. 20, 2008