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Rural Experiences for Health Professions Students (REHPS)

  • Need: An ongoing shortage of healthcare providers in rural areas of South Dakota
  • Intervention: A 4-week summer program placing health professions students in rural communities.
  • Results: Participants express a better understanding of rural health care and interest in future rural practice. Of the 29 participants who have graduated, 26 are practicing in South Dakota and 10 have gone on to practice in rural communities with populations fewer than 10,000 or veteran facilities.

REHPS Logo South Dakota is experiencing an ongoing shortage of healthcare workers, with 59 of the state's 66 counties designated as medically underserved. According to the 2015 Workforce report from the South Dakota Office of Rural Health, the industry’s demand for workers is driven by an aging patient population; an expanding general population; technological advances in the workplace requiring additional staff; a growing emphasis on disease management; and an aging healthcare workforce who must be replaced as they retire.

Rural Experiences for Health Professions Students (REHPS) is based in the Yankton Rural Area Health Education Center in Yankton, South Dakota. The program is designed to raise awareness for the healthcare service needs in underserved areas of the state by placing health professions students in rural or frontier areas of the state. Specific program goals are increasing the number of health profession students who have a positive experience in a rural South Dakota setting and promoting interdisciplinary learning.

REHPS received a Rural Health Workforce Development grant from the Federal Office of Rural Health Policy, funded for three years from September 2010 through August 2013. In 2014, the South Dakota Department of Health began funding the program.

Services offered

The REHPS four-week Summer Experience Program places clinical psychology, master of social work, physician, and physician assistant students from the University of South Dakota and medical laboratory science, pharmacy, and family nursing practice students from South Dakota State University (SDSU) with preceptors in rural or frontier areas of the state.

The program has expanded from three sites in 2011, to six in 2012, nine in 2013, 11 in 2014, and 15 in 2015. Two students from different health professions are placed in each community, providing an interprofessional experience. Each pair of students completes a community project. Participants' experiences are documented in a video and individual student blogs.


A survey of 2012, 2013, 2014 and 2015 participants found:

  • 93.42% strongly agreed or agreed that the experience made it more likely they'd consider rural healthcare practice;
  • 98.67% felt they had a better understanding of rural healthcare; and
  • 77.33% strongly agreed or agreed that they would consider the facility they placed for future employment.

In its 5th year, Rural Experiences for Health Professions Students (REHPS) has students and graduates returning to rural areas. Tia Haines, a 2012 REHPS student in Winner, is now a certified physician assistant providing care to patients in Platte and the outlying community of Geddes, SD.

“The REHPS Program reinforced to me the importance of small town medicine. Rural medical clinics are the foundation for routine wellness and medical care, and I am honored to be able to contribute to the well being of rural South Dakotans.”

Leonard Wonnenberg, a 2011 REHPS student in Wessington Springs, is now a certified physician assistant providing care to patients in Huron and the outlying communities of Woonsocket, Plankinton, and Lake Preston.

“The REHPS program truly offered a rural experience. I was given housing and food. I learned from doctors, nursing, radiology staff, pharmacists, EMTs, school superintendent/principal, distinguished people in the community, and many other people in and outside of the health care realm,” Wonnenberg said. “Health care in a rural community isn't just about providing care for patients. It's about being a community leader. The REHPS program and REHPS community project allowed me to do just that. In a very short time frame, I was able to learn, help provide health care, and provide community service as a community leader in healthcare (as a student of course).”

Students have consistently portrayed their excitement for returning to rural health. Ashley Benda, when just finishing up her fourth REHPS week in the summer of 2013, said she wanted to see the Sisseton facility’s expansion and pursue additional practice experiences there.

“It’s amazing that all of this will be taking place here – the community of Sisseton and all of the smaller surrounding communities will benefit so much from this increased availability of quality health care,” wrote Benda, pharmacy student from Jackson, Minnesota.

REHPS will continue to monitor the career paths of the 87 students who have participated through 2015 and those who participate in future years.

More information about the program is available:

Rural Communities Welcome Health Professions Students, Midwest Medical Edition Magazine, September/October 2012.

Contact Information
Cheri Buffington, REHPS Program Manager
Yankton Rural Area Health Education Center
Health workforce education and training
Interprofessional training of the health workforce
Nurse practitioners and other advanced practice registered nurses
Pharmacy workforce
Physician assistants
States served
South Dakota
Date added
August 22, 2013
Date updated or reviewed
October 16, 2015

Please contact the models and innovations contact directly for the most complete and current information about this program. Summaries of models and innovations are provided by RHIhub for your convenience. The programs described are not endorsed by RHIhub or by the Federal Office of Rural Health Policy. Each rural community should consider whether a particular project or approach is a good match for their community’s needs and capacity. While it is sometimes possible to adapt program components to match your resources, keep in mind that changes to the program design may impact results.