COOS COUNTY — At this moment, eight Oregon Health and Science students are on clinical rotation in Coos County.

The students are all part of the Campus for Rural Health Program through OHSU, established in 2015.

Elements viewed as "signature experiences of the university" are overseen by Elena Andresen, executive vice president and provost of OHSU. As she explained it, the Campus for Rural Health Program is one of those elements, born out of the desire to expand inter-professional aspects of student learning but also to give them experience on how to serve patients in rural areas.

The program was first launched on the South Coast, at the same time as in Klamath Falls, in the fall of 2015. There is also a site in northeast Oregon, but in order to build these three sites so far from the major OHSU campus takes what Andresen described as thought, investment and planning to make sure all of the clinical students had access to resources they needed.

“It was speedy to get this off the ground,” she said. “It often takes a fair amount of time for a university to move into other areas to send students out, but this was a priority for OHSU in terms for what we feel our responsibility is for being the only health and science center for the state.”

For Andresen, she was a dean at the time when the idea for this program was first talked about back in 2013. From what she saw, it was generated by leadership saying “we need to do the right thing in terms of training in our presence in rural areas.”

“The idea was homegrown at OHSU, not prompted by some big, national movement,” she said, adding that many universities have students go to rural sites depending on availability and OHSU also operated the same way until now. “What’s different with this model is that we have three sites where we have people embedded in the community, office space for things to happen, and deep relationships with the community.”

When OHSU puts a student through a rural rotation, students observe the structure of healthcare and the need for people to pull together in rural areas in order to deliver quality care.

“The students talk about the complexity, the difference in social resources, how it is harder to get healthcare in a rural area,” Andresen said. “The practitioners are extraordinary and problem-solve through delivering quality care.”

Not only that, but the university is devoted to inter-professional education, meaning students learn cross disciplines from, with and about each other.

The students take a class that look at the social determinate of health, while also work together on a community project. That project is, in part, selected by the community itself.

“We know quality healthcare depends more and more on good teamwork, so that is a component they are learning at the Campus for Rural Health, not just in the classroom,” Andresen said.

In Coos County, some of those community projects have spanned from healthy eating and active living to working with Advanced Health on the patient center primary care home model. The projects involved focus groups and surveys, which contributed to the conversation on a deeper level than what just the partners could do on their own, according to Amy Dunkak, the rural campus operations director.

Currently, the community project centers around the Nancy Devereux Center in an effort to understand barriers to care for the homeless population.

“I was fortunate to go to the Devereux Center and sit in on orientation with students this week,” said Dunkak. “The students are engaged in a series of interviews with the homeless population.”

Dunkak pointed to the center’s director, Tara Johnson, as being motivated to gather this information as a way to work on future grants and growth potential, while also use this information to meet the needs of the community. Dunkak said Johnson hopes to come back to the community to inform it of the results of this project, particularly the medical community to help better serve the local homeless.

The project began in January, and Dunkak believes it will end in May. The results should be available in June or July.

Before the program even began, Dunkak said students on rotation weren’t aware of each other. Now, they have the chance to interact, learn together, and complete projects like this one at the Devereux Center in unison. Dunkak described it now as having a cohort to share these experiences with, while also improving OHSU’s recruiting opportunities to the program.

The program is at capacity with eight students now. In OHSU’s school of dentistry, students first did a four-week rotation but now have eight week rotations. Meanwhile, medical and nursing students are on four-week rotations, but medical students can go up to 12-weeks if they get onto the Oregon Rural Scholars Program. Different than all the rest are the pharmacy students. They are here anywhere from three to six months, if not longer.

Just in 2018, the program rotated 87 students through the South Coast. Since it began, the program has rotated a total of 270 students on the Couth Coast.

OHSU has looked at housing opportunities in Coos County which could increase the number of students on rotation, including the old McAuley Hospital site which is owned by Advanced Health, but nothing is set in stone at this point.

“We think we can go up from there and at other sites,” Andresen said. “We will look for options and investment. The limiting factor is how many places we have for students given that we lease housing. We would love to expand and have conversations about increasing how many students we have. We're very excited about this program.”

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Reporter Jillian Ward can be reached at 541-269-1222, ext. 235, or by email at jillian.ward@theworldlink.com. Follow her on Twitter: @JE_Wardwriter.