WVSOM’s Rural Practice Day offered insight into rural medicine

Emphasizing primary care in rural areas of West Virginia is a common thread that binds the West Virginia School of Osteopathic Medicine’s (WVSOM) mission and goals.

That idea of encouraging medical students to practice in underserved communities throughout the state was reinforced on Saturday during the fourth annual Rural Practice Day, which was hosted by WVSOM’s Rural Health Initiative (RHI) program.

The event featured a demonstration and air-medical evacuation simulation with helicopters from the National Guard, HealthNet and Air Evac. The three agencies explained hoist operations, hot loads and how to transfer patients from military to civilian aircraft.

“This was a wonderful opportunity for the medical students,” said Janet Hinton, RHI program coordinator. “We also involved other agencies for a more realistic demonstration including the Lewisburg Fire Department, Greenbrier County EMS and the West Virginia State Police.

Second-year student James Mason helped coordinate the simulation and said it is rare to get such a unique experience in medical school.

“RHI teaches us how to treat our patients in the most unique workplaces — logging fields, coal mines and now through the air with some of the most advanced equipment in the country. After this demonstration, future physicians understand the capabilities of aero medical transport and how it can improve their patient’s outcome, which is the entire goal of medical school,” Mason said. “WVSOM and RHI permitted me to develop a nationally recognized Defense Support to Civilian Authorities (DSCA) exercise right here on our campus. Where else can you do that in a medical school?”

John Ford, a third-year medical student, has attended Rural Practice Day every year he has been at WVSOM. This year, he had a first-hand involvement in the helicopter demonstration. 

“It was quite the adventure,” he recalls of being right in the belly of a Black Hawk chopper. “This was my first time working with the Black Hawk platform. It is a much more powerful aircraft than I had thought. Being hoisted up in tandem with the medic is an experience I will never forget.”

Jennifer Bannister, a first-year student, attended the event because of the importance rural health has on her — she has lived and worked exclusively in rural areas even prior to enrolling at WVSOM.

“I am fully aware and intricately tied to the health and economic disparities of rural Appalachia,” Bannister said. “I am fortunate to find myself in a position to serve some of those needs going forward and wanted to know more about how I can do that as an osteopathic physician.”

Rural Practice Day also allowed participants to learn about financial incentive programs available for rural practices and educated student participants about rural practices through testimonials from rural physicians. The group of five successful rural physicians was all WVSOM alumni who represented different fields of primary care, including a pediatrician, D.O. surgeon, family medicine, internal medicine and psychiatry.

“This shows students the various opportunities in the state as well as allow them to hear the physicians’ stories of why those doctors decided to stay in rural primary care in West Virginia as opposed to other states,” Hinton said.

Ford thinks that these types of events that focus on rural medicine show students that there is much more variety than expected when it comes to primary care in rural practices.

And Bannister adds that the rural practice experience is rewarding.

“The health disparities in rural medicine are large. Generally, these areas feel the economic, social and health care crisis of the nation more deeply than others,” she said. “The physician shortage is real, especially in these areas. Good doctors are needed in rural America. Further, doctors need rural America. The opportunity for a rich, fulfilling life does lie in the practice and lifestyle of rural primary care.”