Growing Your Own Health Care: Exciting Opportunities for Students and Communities

Health care. Two words you’ve probably heard a lot lately. But if you live in a rural place, you know that health care isn’t always easy to access. There’s a long distance between you and the clinic; often a lack of medical professionals close by. How many small towns still have their own pharmacist or dentist anymore?

One initiative in Nebraska -- the Rural Health Opportunities Program (RHOP) -- is approaching this challenge by ‘growing their own’.

Started in 1988, the program partners Wayne State and Chadron State colleges with the University of Nebraska Medical Center (UNMC) to identify bright rural students who aspire to work in the health fields. RHOP provides scholarships in clinical laboratory science, physician assistant, physical therapy, radiography, medicine, pharmacy, nursing, and dentistry.

“The thinking was the people who are going to return to rural are those that come from rural,” said Ann Kraft, program coordinator at UNMC.

And it seems to be working.

“I want to come back and have the small town atmosphere, know everybody and wear lots of hats...In small communities that’s what you get to do,” said Alexis Sieh, a senior at Wayne State. Next year she will start medical school at UNMC in Omaha.

Students apply to RHOP when they are seniors in high school. If selected, they receive a full scholarship for their undergraduate studies. If they keep up their grades, they earn a spot at UNMC to complete their training -- they must pay for that portion through loans or other means. The University of Nebraska-Kearney has a similar program called KHOP.

RHOP students come from every single county in the state. The majority comes from communities with less than 1,000 people.

Although there’s no obligation to serve a rural community, most do. Ann Kraft calls it a “commitment of the heart”.

As of Fall 2011, there were over 400 RHOP grads. 75% of all practicing graduates worked in a rural community at some point in their career. Something like 60% currently practice in a rural place.

“We’ve started to see a lot of folks come back to this area to practice after their school,” said Dr. Glenn Kietzmann, a biology professor who helped start RHOP at Wayne State over a decade ago.

“It makes you more worldly. It makes you see from different perspectives and all the different people who are going to be in your field,” said Wayne State freshman Jenna Derner. She’s just out of high school, with plans in place to become a small town pharmacist.

Students have the opportunity to learn from and train alongside alumni around the state. As undergrads they take trips to Omaha to meet with future professors and mentors at UNMC.

Ann Kraft calls the RHOPers the “cream of the crop”. She says she’s impressed with the work ethic of students from small towns. “If you’re from a small town, there is no student council or volleyball team if you don’t step to the plate. In order to get good grades, you have to have time management skills. Those experiences develop a well-rounded, mature person”.

Thanks to the Rural Health Opportunities Program, well-trained professionals are returning to small towns to find jobs waiting for them. And in doing so, they’re improving health care and revitalizing rural communities.

Graphics provided by UNMC RHOP Program