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Rural Health Education Network aids rural residents
By Patrik Johansson, M.D.
With minimal fanfare, the Rural Health Education Network (RHEN) at the University of Nebraska Medical Center (UNMC) has been one of the most effective programs in Nebraska.
RHEN is one of three centers in the UNMC College of Public Health that emphasize rural health. (The others are the Center for Rural Health Policy and the Central States Center for Agricultural Safety and Health.) This year marks the 20th anniversary of the RHEN program and provides an opportunity to reflect on its accomplishments and how it is making a difference for Nebraskans.
For years, UNMC has partnered with communities to provide hands-on training experiences for its health-profession students. Working with a network of volunteer faculty in these communities, almost all UNMC students partake in a rural rotation as part of their clinical training. Students can spend up to nine months living and working in a rural community under the guidance of a health professional. In 2010, more than 530 UNMC students participated in 854 rural rotations in 74 Nebraska communities.
The program exposes students to life in smaller communities and the opportunities available in rural health care. It has been instrumental in inspiring many to pursue a career in rural health care.
It also has been integral in reducing the shortage of health professionals in rural communities and is a key reason why U.S. News & World Report ranks UNMC seventh in the nation in primary care and 15th nationally in rural medicine.
A pipeline of professionals
One of RHEN's goals is to create innovative undergraduate and graduate programs and foster a pipeline of health professions students to serve Nebraskans. A key component is the Rural Health Opportunities Program (RHOP).
Built on the idea that individuals raised in rural areas are more likely to return to rural areas, RHOP encourages and enables rural students to pursue their dreams by giving them a head start. Under RHOP, high school students gain acceptance into one of nine UNMC programs at the same time they begin their undergraduate studies at Chadron State College and Wayne State College.
Tuition is waived during their undergraduate years. RHOP provides students with career choices for virtually every health care field — clinical laboratory science, dental hygiene, dentistry, medicine, nursing, pharmacy, physical therapy, physician assistance and radiography.
It’s making a difference
Since the RHOP program began in 1990, its impact on rural Nebraska has been
- Seventy-five percent of all practicing RHOP graduates have worked in a rural community at some point in their careers.
- Presently, 183 out of 359 practicing RHOP graduates are working as health care providers in rural Nebraska.
- There are 253 RHOP alumni practicing in 57 Nebraska counties.
- Seventy percent of all RHOP graduates have stayed in Nebraska.
Based on the success of the RHOP program, three more early admission programs were developed by UNMC in the past two years:
- The Kearney Health Opportunities Program allows students at the University of Nebraska at Kearney pre-admission to UNMC in five programs — clinical laboratory science, medicine, nursing, pharmacy or radiography.
- Under a partnership between Peru State College and the UNMC College of Pharmacy, three slots in the UNMC College of Pharmacy are held for Peru State students each year.
- The Public Health Early Admission Student Track (PHEAST) targets undergraduates at Chadron State, Wayne State, Peru State and UNK who are interested in a degree in public health at the UNMC College of Public Health. Each institution will select up to three students to enroll in the program. PHEAST will keep bright and talented students in our state and help alleviate the critical shortage of public health workers in rural Nebraska.
To help get all Nebraska students interested in science at an early age, UNMC has held annual science meets for eighth-graders in communities across the state since 1993. More than 1,000 students have participated. In addition, each year, RHEN hosts a career day for more than 250 students from 50 rural schools within a three-hour drive of Omaha.
Looking at the breadth of these programs and how they touch so many different areas of health care, it's easy to see that RHEN has truly made a difference in rural Nebraska — one that will be felt for generations.
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