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MSU to expand rural health care program

Andrea Wendling photo
Courtesy photo
Rural Community Health Program, MSU

People living in rural regions of our state face unique challenges when it comes to accessing healthcare. The Rural Community Health Program at MSU’s College of Human Medicine is trying to change that. We talk to the Rural Community Health Program’s director Dr. Andrea Wendling.

Imagine having cancer and having to drive hours to the nearest specialist every time you needed treatment, or having a kid with strep throat but no way to get them to the doctor’s office. With fewer doctors and a dispersed population, the 20-percent of Americans living in rural areas face some unique healthcare challenges.

Doctors at Michigan State University are hoping a recent grant can help them address some of those challenges.

Current State talks about the work of the Rural Community Health Program with director Andrea Wendling, who is also a family physician in Boyne City.


What are the biggest healthcare challenges for rural Michiganders? 

The first is economic disparity.  They tend to be poorer than people who are living in metropolitan areas. They have an educational disparity where they tend to have less opportunity afforded by education and also this health status disparity where they have higher rates of chronic disease and higher mortality rates than metropolitan populations. And then most of them are living in professional health shortage areas…throughout rural Michigan and have transportation issues and logistical issues that complicate all of those other factors. 

Why is it harder to get physicians to work in rural settings?

There are a couple of issues. Some of it goes back to the biggest predictor of who works in a rural area.  (It’s people) who grew up in a rural area.  So…part of it that goes back to (medical school) admissions. Right now about 10 percent of physicians practice in rural areas throughout the nation and in Michigan. But about 90 percent of medical students are from metropolitan or suburban areas and so there are less rural students getting into medical school, which is really more of a pipeline issue. (Fewer) rural students (are) applying to medical school because they’re less likely to have graduated from college and less likely to have gone to college.  
And there’s a second issue, which is historically, at least for the last 100 years, is (that) our medical education has been centralized in metropolitan areas and tertiary care centers. Because of that, students are not necessarily as comfortable practicing in low resource areas or rural areas because most or all of their training has occurred in metropolitan regions.

Can technology improve rural healthcare access?

Yes, absolutely. We have a mental health shortage area and, especially from a child psychiatry standpoint, we really don’t have resources here to be able to meet the needs of our population.  So we’ve partnered with University of Michigan to provide telemedicine services so that when we need to access a child psychiatrist, we can call, we can discuss that case but also that psychiatrist is able to see our patients within our office using telemedicine. We have many specialists who travel here who will cover multiple small communities by coming one day or a month or two days a month to a smaller community so we can group our patients and have them see that person within their own community rather than having all those patients travel. And also the internet has helped tremendously. Clearly we can access information from our office in these rural communities the same as we could access if we were sitting at the university with the library system. We can get the information that we need in real time to be able to take care of our patients. 

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