Getting Health Care Students To Stay Home In Nebraska

Dec. 2, 2015, 6:45 a.m. ·

Medical professionals and instructors from UNMC participate in a panel discussion about the Rural Healthcare Opportunities Program at Peru State College. (Photo by Ryan Robertson, KVNO News)

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The Changing Look of Nebraska Health Care: The Rural Healthcare Opportunities Program, or “RHOP," was created so students who want to practice medicine but still live in smaller communities could do just that.

Peru, Nebraska is a small town located a little more than an hour south of Omaha. It’s the definition of a rural community. Fewer than a thousand people live in Peru, which is nestled amongst rolling hills and large, sprawling farms. The town is also home to Peru State College, which recently expanded its Rural Healthcare Opportunities Program, or RHOP.

RHOP started 25 years ago as a collaborative effort between the University of Nebraska Medical Center, Chadron State College and Wayne State College.

Students interested in a medical career are encouraged to enroll in RHOP with the expectation they will one day practice medicine in a rural area. Once accepted, an RHOP student’s undergraduate work is paid for and they’re guaranteed acceptance into UNMC.

Gwen Arthur was one of the first to enroll when RHOP came to Peru State four years ago.

“I’ve always wanted to do healthcare,” Arthur said. “There’s never really been another option.”

Arthur will be among the first RHOP students to graduate from Peru State. She’s from the small town of Hickman, and wants to be a pharmacist there because she likes the idea of knowing her patients on a personal level.

Arthur shared her story during a rural health symposium at Peru State, where RHOP students and medical instructors from UNMC talked to two dozen high school students about the program.

When Peru State first joined RHOP, students could only take courses in pharmacy and nursing. Now, the program includes physical therapy, physician’s assistant, medical lab sciences, radiography and public health.

In all, there are 10 areas of study offered to students at the three state colleges participating in RHOP.

“I still don’t think there’s anything like it anywhere else in the country,” Dr. Jeff Harrison said. Harrison is a family physician at UNMC, and one of the masterminds behind RHOP. He says 60 percent of graduates from the program make good on their word and return to rural areas to practice medicine.

“Sixty percent may sound low, until you realize you're talking about high school seniors who were 17-years-old when they come in for an interview and signed up,” Harrison said. “[The students] don't know who they're going to meet in college--a spouse? Where their life is going to take them? It's across all disciplines. So we really feel pretty good about the program, it’s been a real boom.”

Once an RHOP student completes their undergraduate work and is enrolled at UNMC, they will spend significant time at one of five rural training track sites located in Scottsbluff, North Platte, Kearney, Grand Island and Norfolk.

Harrison said during a time when the nation is facing a shortage of rural healthcare providers, Nebraska already has a successful pipeline in place to meet the medical needs of rural communities. In fact, the UNMC College of Dentistry ranks number one in the nation for schools returning graduates to rural areas. When added together, graduates from the UNMC RHOP have over 700 years of combined practice in Nebraska’s rural communities.

“Not everybody wants to go do their training in North Platte or Scottsbluff, but those who do tend to stay in the area,” Harrison said. “They’ve got a reason to be there; they know what the opportunities are. So when it comes to rural training, we’re second to nobody.”

Harrison said in many cases, students in the UNMC RHOP program have jobs lined up before they even graduate.

That’s good news for people like Gwen Arthur, who, thanks to RHOP, is four years closer to living her dream of being a pharmacist in rural Nebraska.

“The only fear I have is when I have to give shots,” Arthur said, “otherwise I feel pretty confident.”

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