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Published on February 04, 2020

family medicine resident looking at a patient

Bringing quality healthcare to rural communities

About 25% of the U.S. population lives in rural areas, but only 10% of physicians practice in those areas. Gundersen Health System and Gundersen Medical Foundation launched a Family Medicine Residency program and clinic in July 2016 to address the shortage of rural healthcare providers in the Tri-state Region. The program trains doctors interested in practicing family medicine, especially in rural Midwest communities.

"The training and realworld experience they gain leads to independent practice across the full spectrum of care and at every life stage," explains Paul Klas, MD, director of Gundersen's Family Medicine Residency program. "Our residents receive extensive training in rural settings, including rural emergency medicine, surgery, primary care and obstetrics."

The first class of family medicine residents graduated in 2019. One of the graduates, Elizabeth White, MD, is now at the Gundersen Viroqua Clinic.

"I grew up on a family dairy farm in southeast Wisconsin," Dr. White says. "By practicing medicine here, I am returning to my roots and serving the kind of community that raised me. I understand the hard work and challenges that are often part of the rural experience, and I hope my roots will create common ground with my patients."

Victoria Sparks, MD, Gundersen La Crescent Clinic, was also a member of the 2019 graduating class. Her path was different. Dr. Sparks grew up in the Milwaukee area, but she wasn't convinced she wanted to practice medicine in an urban area.

"I liked the idea of rural medicine because I wanted to practice the full spectrum of care, feel part of a community and build lasting relationships with my patients," she recalls. Gundersen's Family Medicine Residency program allowed her to experience this.

"During my residency I worked in West Union, Iowa, in all aspects of care. My schedule was always full, and I clearly saw the need was there," Dr. Sparks explains. "I learned many procedures, saw a variety of patients, and developed the skills and confidence to be a better doctor."

While the Family Medicine Residency program is a major ongoing investment, Gundersen is also addressing the need for rural healthcare with:

  • 36 regional medical clinics and hospitals
  • 22 telemedicine and 28 outreach locations for easier access to medical specialists
  • Regional eye clinics, behavioral health centers, renal dialysis centers, sports medicine and orthopedic centers, and more
  • Telephone Nurse Advisor at (608) 775-4454 and VirtualVisit available to anyone, anytime

Medical students experience rural practice

To address the shortage of rural physicians, Gundersen Medical Foundation joined the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health (UWSMPH) in a program called the Wisconsin Academy for Rural Medicine (WARM) nearly a decade ago. Gundersen's WARM teaching campus was one of the first in the state.

Through WARM, Gundersen helps train third- and fourth-year medical students who have an interest in rural medicine. Students spend part of their time training at Gundersen's regional clinics, where they are exposed to rural medicine and what it's like practicing in small communities. Students experience continuity of care while participating in all aspects of healthcare that regional rural campuses offer.

An ongoing commitment to WARM reflects Gundersen's investment in the future of healthcare in the region since many WARM students have gone on to practice medicine in the rural communities it serves.

To learn more about Gundersen's efforts to train the next generation of rural family medicine doctors and to show your support, visit Medical Education.

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