Medical students from the Rural Medical Education (RMED) program in Rockford are on a mission to help the underserved in rural communities across Illinois.
For the past 25 years, RMED, a service of the University of Illinois College of Medicine, has been addressing the shortage of primary care physicians in rural areas.
Twenty percent of the population in Illinois is rural, and the RMED program addresses medical needs that are prevalent in those communities.
Dr. John Plescia, director of program, said there is a huge need for psychiatric care in small towns.
Mental health issues are still seen as a stigma in rural communities, according to Plescia.
“There is a stoic attitude of, ‘I can do it on my own, and I don’t need any help,’ that kind of lets some of these mental health issues spiral out of control,” Plescia said.
Populations in rural communities tend to be older and have worse health outcomes, according to Plescia.
“Some of the diseases that are more common and more severe are some of the same medical conditions that you are going to see in the Chicago suburbs, but a lot of times they go untreated longer,” Plescia said.
RMED students typically help treat rural patients suffering from depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder and PTSD.
Farming communities also seek care for physical ailments, including farm labor accidents and chemical exposure.
The RMED program was initially about family medicine and primary care, but its services have expanded.
“Our collaborating hospitals across the state said primary care is important, but they needed psychiatry, general surgery and OBGYN services, so we broadened the RMED program to encompass some of those other specialties,” Plescia said.
Approximately 30 students are participating in the RMED program, and more than half are from the Rockford campus.
Plescia said approximately 70 percent of the students are practicing in rural, underserved communities.
Thirty health systems have partnered with RMED.
Many RMED students grew up in towns with populations of 5,000 or less and are more comfortable doing their rotations in similar environments.
“This is a big part of why we have been so successful is we recruit students from small towns and they are much more likely to go back and practice in those areas once they are done with residency,” Plescia said.
RMED is different from other medical programs, according to Plescia, as it takes an interdisciplinary approach to learning.
“The students all get trained together, and we have seminars together which is very unique," he said. "We are working on a team-based approach and team-based teaching and learning."