Dean's Update 2022-11

November 21, 2022

MSUCOM partners with the Michigan Center for Rural Health to serve rural communities

We often speak about community service and its core importance within the profession of osteopathic medicine – serving patients wherever they are and ensuring they receive the healthcare they need and deserve. Access to physicians, PAs and other healthcare providers is integral to that care, whether patients are in communities with numerous options or are in communities where access to healthcare is challenging.

Rural communities are among those facing challenges. As we think about how to bring more healthcare providers to patients who live in the remote villages, farming communities and other rural areas throughout the state of Michigan, the college strives to ensure our students know about all options as they consider their futures as physicians or PAs and the opportunities to serve communities with the greatest need.  

To help, the MSU College of Osteopathic Medicine partners with the Michigan Center for Rural Health (MCRH), housed here at Michigan State University. The center’s mission is “to coordinate, plan and advocate for improved health for Michigan’s rural residents and communities.” As dean of MSUCOM, I’m honored to serve on the board of this organization.

The MCRH was started in 1991 with authorization by Congress under three organizations – Michigan State University, the Michigan Department of Public Health and the Michigan Association of Public Health. Each state has an office for rural health care – in 37 states this office resides within the state department of human and health services; in 10 states it is housed in state offices inside of a university; and three are nonprofit offices, including Michigan.

We spoke with John Barnas, executive director of the Michigan Center for Rural Health, to talk more about these challenges and the work we are doing to help improve access to healthcare in these areas. The MCRH lives by its Three Rs: Rural, Recruitment and Retention – helping rural communities in their quest to find more physicians and other healthcare providers.

The challenges are many, such as the distance people must travel to reach care and a lack of stable internet in outlying areas to take advantage of other programs, including telehealth. But topping the list is finding healthcare professionals who want to live in in these areas, Barnas said. He hopes getting medical students more connected will help in these efforts.

“When students spend time in rural areas, there is a greater chance they will practice in such an area,” Barnas said, adding that students from rural areas are also more likely to serve those same communities or one that is similar.

MSUCOM medical students have the opportunity to learn and become more familiar with rural healthcare through the Project ECHO® model, (Extension for Community Healthcare Outcomes), using videoconferencing technology to connect specialists with healthcare providers in Northern Michigan and the Upper Peninsula to help them gain additional skills and expertise. Peter Gulick, D.O. and associate professor with MSUCOM, leads the monthly infectious disease ECHO programs with a lecture topic and case evaluations. Providers and MSUCOM students can bring case studies for discussion.

The monthly programs have included such topics as Hepatitis C, HIV and updates on COVID and Monkeypox. Dr. Gulick presents the topic and then presents a case or cases, asking the group about methods for evaluating the case, and diagnosing and treating the patient.

“The purpose is to raise awareness in rural communities,” Dr. Gulick said. “They’re the front lines – getting information and help to them is how we reach and serve patients.”

With a limited number of physicians with this specialty in rural Michigan, Barnas added programs like ECHO are important to improve patient care.

He hopes MSUCOM student involvement in these types of programs will also translate into more interest in working in these rural areas. He is also helping to connect students from rural areas who have an interest in healthcare with MSUCOM while still in high school.

“We want students from rural Michigan to get into our medical schools,” Barnas said. To help in that outcome, MCRH sponsors scholarships for high school juniors and seniors to MSUCOM’s OsteoCHAMPS. The eight-day summer residential program provides high school students an inside look at osteopathic medicine, including anatomy, biochemistry, Osteopathic Manipulative Medicine (OMM), a research project, writing, nursing simulation and clinical skills. Attendees also participate in other activities and attend “Dinner with the DOcs,” where they can ask questions, speak with and learn directly from physicians about what it means to be a Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine (D.O.).

OsteoCHAMPS returned in-person in July after COVID forced it virtual. Also returning this year after a COVID-forced hiatus is MSUCOM’s Michigan Center for Rural Health 2022 Rural Road Trip. As part of this program, D.O. students can learn directly from physicians, other healthcare providers and administration about how a rural hospital works.

These types of personal interactions are extremely important, Barnas said.

MSUCOM continues in its effort to educate tomorrow’s physicians and PAs to serve patients in all communities, whether in rural, suburban or urban areas. Building and strengthening our partnerships and relationships, like the one the college has with MCRH, are keys to success in these programs and ultimately in supporting wellness of patients state-wide and nationally.

Dean Andrea Amalfitano, D.O., Ph.D.