Summer Program Gives Students Experience in Rural Illinois Hospitals

by Candi Helseth

University of Illinois health professions students are getting the opportunity to practice their skills and solve real problems they won’t encounter in the academic world through summer preceptorships that put them to work on special projects in rural hospitals. The resource-strapped hospitals benefit from young minds eager to learn, research and present their solutions. Ultimately, the program is designed to attract graduating health professionals to jobs in rural areas.

Students in preceptorships shadow medical professionals

Students in preceptorships shadow medical professionals to learn about day to day realities in the profession they are pursuing.

“We believe strongly in growing our own,” said Vicki Weidenbacher-Hoper, a Master Social Worker at the University of Illinois National Center for Rural Health Professions (NCRHP) in Rockford, Ill., which sponsors the three, six-week preceptorships each year. “Ours is the only long-term interdisciplinary community-based preceptorship program I know of that doesn’t focus solely on medical students.”

Eligible disciplines for the Summer Rural Interdisciplinary Health Professions Preceptorships include approximately 15 health care majors, including nursing, pharmacy, physical therapy, social work, nutrition, public health and other health care disciplines where shortages exist in rural areas. Students shadow and work with a variety of rural health care professionals, participate in a mandatory community service-learning project and complete a classroom component. The program, developed by NCRHP, is based on the educational model of problem-based learning (PBL).

“PBL helps students develop problem-solving skills applicable to the real-world practice of a professional and to foster the self-directed learning skills necessary for the maintenance of professional competence,” Weidenbacher-Hoper explained. “Students meet regularly with a NCRHP faculty member to reflect on their experiences and actions.”

Pharmacy student Elise Wildman and medical student Lindsay Meurer were among students enrolled in last summer’s preceptorships. Wildman worked at St. Mary’s Good Samaritan Hospital (SMG) in Centralia, Ill., and Meurer at Katherine Shaw Bethea (KSB) Hospital in Dixon, Ill. Both women said their experiences honed their professional skills, and they also benefited in unexpected ways through the community involvement and classroom component.

2012 Summer Rural Interdisciplinary Health Professions Preceptorships

University health professions students, including Lindsay Meurer (fourth from left), participated in the 2012 Summer Rural Interdisciplinary Health Professions Preceptorships, working on research and community projects in rural hospitals.

Wildman’s community project appeared to have no relation to her pharmacy major, requiring that she work with 16 troubled teen girls who were wards of the state. Wildman taught classes and modeled positive changes in areas such as nutrition, fitness and goal setting. But, Wildman said, “One of the things I learned was how to tailor a presentation to a difficult audience and how to defuse situations. The girls I worked with had socio-emotional problems. It was really challenging to get them focused on what we were doing. The skills I learned will be helpful in future work situations.”

Meurer’s community service project involved conducting research and developing a proposal to reduce hospital readmission rates. (As of Oct. 1, hospitals are penalized financially for Medicare readmissions that occur within 30 days.) In one of Meurer’s classes, members of her group dealt with a controversial issue where a community believed an area mine was exposing residents to harmful amounts of lead.

“Working through the this case not only improved my problem solving skills, but also allowed me to view the case from the standpoint of others in the group and see the importance of solving community health problems through collaboration,” Meurer said. “While my thoughts focused on the physician’s role in the community, my colleagues from other health disciplines presented issues I did not think of. As a group, we formulated a plan to meet the needs of the community.”

Both women said they gained better appreciation for the health care system and team as a whole. They also better understand the advantages, as well as the challenges, of working in rural health care.

“What I learned will definitely apply to my future practice in medicine,” Meurer said. “The experience did solidify my desire to practice medicine in a rural community.”

Meurer and Wildman grew up in rural Illinois. According to Weidenbacher-Hoper, data demonstrates that students raised in rural areas are more likely to practice in rural areas. However, she added, preceptorships are not limited to students with rural backgrounds.

The preceptorship program began 10 years ago as a pilot project and continues to expand. NCRHP partners with KSB, SMG and Harrisburg Medical Center to provide students with rural experiences. Students chosen for the preceptorships have come from additional Illinois colleges as well as from Iowa and Indiana. The students receive housing, meals and a $1,500 stipend. To learn more, visit the NCRHP Rural Interdisciplinary Health Professions Summer Preceptorships web site, or contact Vicki Weidenbacher-Hoper at 815-395-5854.

Back to: Fall 2012 Issue