Go. explore. learn. But come back.
Mark Vukonich, fourth year medical student at the University of Minnesota, participated in two internship experiences, Summer Internship of Medicine and Rural Physician Associate Program, bringing him both times to Fergus Falls.
Often you hear about youth wanting to leave the communities in which they grow up. Central Minnesota Area Health Education Center (AHEC) is encouraging health profession students to return to the area after completing their education.
A recent success story is Mark Vukonich, fourth year medical student at the University of Minnesota, who, through his connection with Central Minnesota AHEC and exposure to multiple settings, has strengthened his desire to return to central Minnesota and practice medicine in Fergus Falls.
Experience and understanding are key elements in choosing educational and career paths. During Vukonich's first year as a medical student at the University of Minnesota Medical School in Duluth, the school suggested he connect with Laurissa Stigen, Executive Director of Central Minnesota AHEC, to see what opportunities might be available for a Summer Internship of Medicine (SIM) experience.
"I am originally from the Underwood area," said Vukonich, "I have family and friends here so I thought I would see if there was something available in Fergus Falls."
The SIM program is an elective, two to eight week, rural immersion experience occurring during the summer vacation period between the first two years of medical school. It encourages student involvement in community, health systems, clinical medicine, and interprofessional experiences.
After connecting with Stigen, together they worked out a plan for what the SIM rotation would look like at Lake Region Healthcare and with a variety of community-based experiences in Fergus Falls.
"My 4-week rural experience was very good," said Vukonich. "I worked primarily in the clinic's Family Medicine Department with Dr. Vennerstom as well as with Dr. Van Valkenburg. And, I would go back and forth to the hospital's emergency department and other areas, spending time with varied specialists."
The SIM rotation allowed Vukonich to go beyond the classroom and lecture settings and to see first-hand how delivering medicine is done in the real world and in a rural community.
"First of all, the biggest thing for me is you are able to experience how the flow of medicine works on the ground level. Having this experience was kind of an introduction into a lot of the disease processes," he said.
Even though he does have a vested interest in the area, Vukonich never really thought about practicing in Fergus Falls until after he did his SIM rotation there. "I started to think this might be a good place to come back. It planted a seed a little bit."
Delivering medicine in rural Minnesota is a different experience than in an urban setting.
After the SIM experience, Vukonich returned to the University of Minnesota and completed his second year of medical school. While most medical students at school spend their third year on the Twin Cities campus, a select number who apply, and are chosen, participate in the Rural Physician Associate Program (RPAP). The program allows the student to spend nine months in a community-based educational experience. Vukonich says the medical school encourages students to participate in the RPAP because they want to train students to go into rural practice where need is great and they see value in building connections by first-hand exposure.
"They really talk to us a lot about it," said Vukonich. "So when the time came to apply for the RPAP program and I realized this is what I want to do--community, rural-type medicine--I applied."
Vukonich chose Lake Region Healthcare as his preferred site and after talking with faculty about his desire to practice in a rural setting like Fergus Falls, he was awarded the chance.
Vukonich's previous connection to Central MN AHEC, and his SIM experience, was key in helping him become more involved during his RPAP rotation with a project to help prevent falls in the elderly in Otter Tail County.
"I worked on a falls prevention project called the Inter-Professional Falls Prevention Education Program which has been going at Lake Region Healthcare since 2004."
The project is an interdisciplinary program involving medical professionals from pharmacy, nursing, public health, home health and physical therapy as well as health professions students from a number of health care disciplines. The project was launched with the support of MN AHEC. It provided Vukonich another positive practice experience in Fergus Falls and the ability to connect to the community on another level.
"It was good to work with the different areas of health care and to get out into the community and visit people in their homes," said Vukonich.
Vukonich also said the RPAP experience allowed him to see the similarities and differences between urban and rural health care. "The medicine part is the same in large and small hospitals," he said. "As far as structurally, it is totally different, especially for the student. In larger hospitals you have the attending physician, consultants, senior resident, intern and then the medical students." He said medical students are more of an add-along in a larger, urban hospital.
"When I came to Fergus Falls it was a lot different than the experiences both in Duluth and in the Twin Cities because you are basically there right along with the physician and they treat you as an equal. It's great to test your strengths and weaknesses and find out your way of doing it rather than being the last one to see the patient after things have already been done."
There are other differences, too.
"A big plus for me in a smaller, rural hospital is you have the opportunity to do everything and practice the full spectrum of your medical field." He says continuity is a big thing in a rural community like Fergus Falls. "You get to follow the patient and have that continuity."
Vukonich said he thought if he had gone to other rural hospitals such as Melrose, Buffalo, or Crookston, he most likely would have received a similar experience like he did in Fergus Falls. However, the time at Lake Region Healthcare solidified his desire to be here. "I love the people I work with and it's a nice facility," he said.
"If there is a young person interested in health care, I would have to say that during my years of medical school and undergraduate experiences so far, I'm so glad I chose to get into health care. It's very rewarding. It's also a flexible profession, accommodating all personality types and interests. If I had to make a choice again, I would choose health care."
Contact: Lori Larson, Regional Specialist, Central Minnesota AHEC 218-736-1690
Central Minnesota Area Health Education Center is one of six regional offices in the Minnesota AHEC Network that promotes rural health educational opportunities and addresses health workforce challenges. In collaboration with the University of Minnesota, the Central Minnesota office serves a 15-county region connecting students to careers, professionals to communities, and communities to better health. For more information visit www.mnahec.umn.edu/Central_AHEC or call 218-736-1601.