Scope of connectedness

UND School of Medicine and Health Sciences’ stethoscope donation program rich in symbolism and practicality

Haley Amoth

Haley Amoth, a first-year medical student at UND and Langdon, N.D., native, shows off her engraved stethoscope that was donated to her by Dr. Heidi Bittner of Devils Lake, N.D., part of The SMHS’ “Adopt a Medical Student,” now in its sixth year. The program pairs donors — mostly physicians — with first-year medical students, who receive the engraved stethoscopes soon after they begin their studies. Photo by Jackie Lorentz.

It’s a gift that can last a lifetime. More importantly, it’s a stamp of approval and a sign of connection.

The “Adopt a Medical Student” program at the UND School of Medicine and Health Sciences, now in its sixth year, pairs donors — mostly physicians — with first-year medical students, who receive an engraved stethoscope soon after they begin their studies. Amoth’s stethoscope donated to her by Dr. Heidi Bittner of Devils Lake, N.D.

Receiving the stethoscope is a big deal, said Haley Amoth, a first-year medical student from Langdon, N.D.

“We’re being entrusted with this instrument by a practicing physician,” Amoth said. “That tells me that someone believes in me.”

“When you don that stethoscope, you are donning your identity as a physician,” she said. “The white coat and stethoscope are the two most distinctive features of a physician. You are held to a different standard. It’s a big moment in your individual and professional development.”

Hunger for mentorship

The students receive the instruments, one of which can cost hundreds of dollars, during the fall semester at a special luncheon. Many donors send letters along with the stethoscope, fostering mentorship and connection.

Medical students begin using the gift almost immediately in UND’s patient-centered learning curriculum.

“The symbolism of the stethoscope is more valuable than the implement itself,” said Amoth.

The gift builds connections between donors, medical students and patients, and also helps students with expenses, said Joshua Wynne, dean of the School and UND’s vice president for health sciences, who started the program in 2011. Wynne still practices medicine and uses the stethoscope from his first year of medical residency. He and his wife, Dr. Susan Farkas, also donate to the program.

“There is a hunger for mentor relationships,” said Wynne. “These may develop into mentors, friends and advisors. It’s a useful bridge.”

And the stethoscope also symbolizes connecting with patients.

“The hands-on procedure of placing a stethoscope on a patient connects with that person,” Wynne said. “The program connects the students, the practitioner and the community. The program was an ingredient in increasing philanthropy and connectedness. We wanted our graduates to come back, and to show our students that we care about them.”

It also was a way to involve potential donors and help them see how they could positively influence students and their future.

Haley Amoth

Amoth receives her engraved stethoscope from Dr. Joshua Wynne, dean of The SMHS and vice president for Health Affairs at UND. Medical students receive the instruments, one of which can cost hundreds of dollars, during the fall semester at a special luncheon. Photo courtesy of the UND School of Medicine & Health Sciences.

Growing philanthropy

The program marked the beginning of a turnaround in philanthropy and student debt.

Five years ago, said Wynne, UND’s medical students had above-average debt compared to other schools, ranking in the 75th percentile for debt but in the 20th percentile for cost.

“We stress admitting rural students,” said Wynne, adding that those students tend to have a lower income and take out more loans. The School is regularly ranked near the top nationally in the percentage of family and rural physicians it educates.

Plus, the School had less philanthropic support than many similar schools. That meant fewer scholarships for students.

The Adopt a Medical Student Program was a way to start and increase the donor base. They had some difficulty finding donors the first two years. But today, even with more medical students, there is a waiting list for donors to give stethoscopes.

Several donors have given to multiple students each year, and one physician has supported 28 students.

Reducing student debt is one important component in the state’s effort to deal with projected physician shortages. The School and its Advisory Council developed the Healthcare Workforce Initiative to address these and other issues.

As a result, the State Legislature provided funds to increase the size of each incoming class as well as the number of residency slots in the state. The state also approved implementation of the RuralMed Scholarship Program, which will increase healthcare graduates who practice in the state by absolving debt for physicians who practice five years in rural North Dakota.

“We had generous support from the state,” Wynne said. “And we thank the Legislature for being exceptionally generous. It’s the best of a public/private partnership.”

That and increased philanthropy drove student debt down to the 33rd percentile.

“Donors responded,” Wynne said, and last year the School led the University in amount of fundraising.

Students are glad for the help.

“We really do appreciate the efforts of the state,” said Amoth, who has received scholarships. “I’m indebted to everyone in the state for my education.”

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