SMHS expands RuralMed health workforce retention program

The UND School of Medicine & Health Sciences (SMHS) is expanding its state-sponsored RuralMed Program.

Established in concert with the North Dakota Legislative Assembly in 2009-10, RuralMed was designed to increase the number of new physicians practicing in rural North Dakota. Here’s how it works: UND medical students apply for the program during any of their four years in medical school and, if accepted, see the cost of their tuition paid in return for five years of practice in a rural North Dakota hospital or clinic.

At the program’s inception, student enrollees were required to pursue a post-graduate residency in family medicine. Internal medicine and general surgery were added later. Today, however, that pool of specialties is being expanded to include all medical specialties.

“The expansion of the RuralMed Program will increase opportunities for our medical students to pursue rural practice in North Dakota,” noted Jim Porter, Ph.D., associate dean for Student Affairs & Admissions at the SMHS. “Addressing the shortage of physicians in North Dakota, especially in rural areas, will enhance the quality of life of North Dakotans across the state.” 

Like much of the nation, North Dakota is experiencing a shortage of physicians, particularly in rural areas. The consequences of this shortage, which include overworked providers and limited access to health care for North Dakotans of all backgrounds, have been especially salient during an ongoing global pandemic.

“The RuralMed program has given a huge recruitment boost to communities with physician shortages, while at the same time reducing student loan debt, which can be a significant barrier to physicians choosing rural practice opportunities,” added Dave Molmen, interim CEO of Altru Health System and chair of the SMHS Advisory Council.

Molmen’s colleague Casey Ryan, a physician and member of North Dakota’s State Board of Higher Education, agreed, praising the state’s only medical school for developing the original program a decade ago, and its recent expansion.

“The RuralMed Program is innovative and benefits people living in rural North Dakota communities by stabilizing often short-staffed health systems,” Ryan said. “The impact these providers make in their communities is huge, and will continue to be for the foreseeable future. It’s the right thing to do.”

To date, nine RuralMed graduates from UND are practicing in rural North Dakota, and 18 more enrollees are scheduled to practice in rural parts of the state following their residency training over the next several years.