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Loan forgiveness offers primary care incentives

Sarah Ristvedt is one of many University medical students who have chosen to pursue rural primary care, despite its lower earning potential. This spring, U.S. News & World Report ranked the University of Minnesota Medical School 5th in rural medicine, 7th in primary care, and 10th in family medicine nationally. (Photo courtesy of Sarah Ristvedt)

Fourth-year medical student Sarah Ristvedt is from a rural community in western Minnesota, but from a young age, she knew she wouldn’t follow the family tradition of hog farming. Instead, she wanted to become a doctor and return home to practice.

She was quick to apply to the Rural Physician Associate Program (RPAP) while attending the University of Minnesota Medical School, Duluth campus. With RPAP, she participated in a nine-month clinical experience last year in a community of fewer than 2,500 people. It’s 25 miles from her hometown of Beardsley, and there’s nowhere she’d rather be.

“My attending physicians were mostly specialists and would ask why I was going into primary care, saying I should think about lifestyle,” says Ristvedt. “[I am] choosing a specialty that isn’t going to make as much money as others.”

But to her, rural Minnesota is where she feels most connected, and where she knows she can make a big difference. She plans to stick with her plan, even though she will graduate this year $200,000 in debt.

Repaying that debt won’t be easy on a rural, primary-care doctor’s salary, and that can dissuade others from choosing Ristvedt’s path. That’s why the University has included a $1.5 million legislative proposal for a student loan forgiveness program that would offer debt relief to health professional students who make a three-year commitment to practice in an underserved Minnesota community.

Such debt relief, agrees Ristvedt, could serve as a powerful recruitment tool, attracting new practitioners to an area they had not previously believed they could afford to serve.

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