Students from a historically Black med school are delivering care across rural Maine

In the two weeks she’s been working at the Cutler Health Center on UMaine’s Orono campus, physician assistant student Katie Bandstra says she’s seen at least 55 patients.

“It’s mid-October, so we’re getting the flu season,” said Bandstra. “So a lot of patients have come in with acute respiratory viral illnesses.”

Bandstra and classmate Maddie Vinet are second-year students at the Morehouse School of Medicine, a historically Black medical school in Atlanta, Georgia. They’re both in Maine under a new pilot program between the HBCU medical school and Northern Light Health, Maine’s second largest health care provider.

Hospitals around the country are having a difficult time recruiting and keeping clinical staff. Those issues strike extra hard in a rural state like Maine which faces challenges with health delivery. The new program looks to address this by placing physician assistant students from the HBCU medical school specializing in rural health into clerkships at Northern Light clinics across the state.

At the Cutler Health Center, Bandstra and Vinet are spending their clinical rotation working with the center’s supervising physicians to diagnose and treat patients who are primarily UMaine students. Vinet says they must complete ten of these month-long rotations to graduate.

“We will be headed to the clinic in Hampden to do another family medicine rotation [after this],” Vinet said.

“We’re taking a historically Black college school of medicine and trying to get a pathway to new talent,” said Darmita Wilson, the vice president of Northern Light Health Medical Group who helped organize the collaboration, “so that we can train them, we can preceptor them, and then hopefully in the end recruit them. That’s our whole goal.”

The program started, according to Wilson, with a phone call from a former colleague now serving on the Moorehouse School of Medicine’s leadership team:

”He said, ‘Listen, I just started a new PA program at Morehouse, would you consider starting a rural medicine track?’ And I said, ‘Well, you can’t get any more rural than here [in Maine.] Let’s look at it.’ “

The two other MSM students in the rural medicine track are Detavius Veal and Hillary Birago. Both Veal and Birago are doing their rotations at a Northern Light clinic in Presque Isle. Veal says he understands the challenges of rural health care from having grown up in a small town in Georgia.

”As far as anybody that might need to go see like a cardiologist or dermatologist, the nearest one would be maybe 30 minutes away,” said Veal. “[It’s the] same if, for example, there was like a really bad accident. The nearest trauma hospital is also like 30–45 minutes away. So, I wanted to be able to give back to those rural communities and provide the access to health care that those communities are deserving of as well.”

The demand for rural health providers in Maine has never been higher. But beyond simply filling in the holes, Wilson emphasized the importance for Northern Light to have health providers of color treating patients across the state.

“We know just by data alone that people do better when they respond to providers that look like them,” said Wilson. “There’s a higher level of trust, as it relates to that. [Patients] feel more comfortable that our organization has diverse providers. They’re more adept to being compliant to the things that they need to have healthy outcomes.”

The next phase will be to open the program up to more students. Around 10 PAs are set to start next summer. If that’s successful, Wilson says the organizations plan to establish a hub in Maine so MSM students specializing in rural medicine can spend the entirety of their 40-week clerkship in the state.

“Even though it is predominantly white, Maine is diverse,” added Wilson. “There are pockets of population of diverse populations. We want to make sure that we serve all of the Mainers and not just some.”

Wilson has already started recruiting the current PAs to return to Maine full time after graduating; two are already expressing interest.

Supplying Maine’s rural health needs with diverse personnel will take some time. In spite of the barriers, Detavius Veal remains optimistic in the partnership’s success.

“I would love to come back to Maine,” said Veal, “even if it’s just to finish out some more rotations in the near future. I think it’s a great learning environment so far. I really enjoy just how pleasant everyone is [here]. I don’t feel discriminated against, I feel welcomed every time I walk [into the clinic]. It’s really just been a positive experience that I really appreciate.”

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