Bristol Bay welcomes medical students as part of rural medicine summer program
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Bristol Bay welcomes medical students as part of rural medicine summer program

Jun 01, 2023

Most medical students spend their first two years with a textbook – or several. But this summer, Courtney Stage and Michael Kaden - Hoffmann are working in rural community health as part of ‘RUOP,’ or the Rural, Underserved Opportunities Program through the University of Washington School of Medicine.

Stage is based in Naknek at Camai Community Health Center with her instructor, PA-C Katie Van Atta. She’s originally from Homer, and wants to work in her home community one day. Working in Naknek, she said, has been a great learning opportunity in what rural healthcare looks like.

“I'm really here to listen. I feel like the community has more to teach me than I have to teach them. So I'm definitely taking it all in,” she said.

Stage, who grew up commercial fishing, said she sees a connection to fishing, the area’s main industry, and some of the injuries she’s treated. Naknek welcomes a large fleet as well as several cannery workers every summer.

“You're seeing hand injuries that are happening during fish processing. You're also seeing crush injuries. I've seen a lot of soft tissue infections in hands, things that I have not seen from shadowing in clinics in Anchorage areas,” she said.

Kaden - Hoffmann is from Fairbanks. This summer, he’s instructed by Dr. Ronald Talaga. He said he spent his first two weeks assisting in Kanakanak Hospital before transitioning to the Bristol Bay Area Health Corporation Clinic in Naknek. He also made trips to clinics in King Salmon and South Naknek. The work at the hospital, he said, gave him a chance to witness several different departments in action.

“I got to see what emergency medicine looks like there, inpatient medicine, outpatient medicine. I went by the diabetes clinic. I worked with the pediatrician for a day,” he said. “And so it was really cool to see how all of that functions in a rural setting.”

Both students are in the region as part of the WWAMI program. WWAMI stands for Washington, Wyoming, Alaska, Montana and Idaho. It’s a partnership between the University of Washington’s medical school and higher education institutions in each state. Alaska’s WWAMI program partners with the University of Alaska Anchorage.

“The WWAMI program is very unique among medical schools because it allows people in states who don't have a standalone institution to attend medical school for the first two years of the program in their home state, and to work and live in their own communities while they're learning about medicine,” Stage said.

Alaska ranks third in the country for health professional shortage areas, according to the Health Resources and Services Administration, meaning there aren’t enough primary, dental or mental healthcare providers. There were 324 identified shortage areas for primary care alone in Alaska in 2022.

Kaden-Hoffmann says he hopes those interested in medicine consider WWAMI, and that it’s important to get locals involved in the healthcare system.

“You understand the problems that come in, you understand the resources available better, and you have better connections with your patients, and that results in better health for everyone,” he said.

In June, Governor Dunleavy signed a budget allocating an additional $48,000 to the WWAMI program in Alaska, as well as $2 million to expand its facilities. The program now has funds to add ten students. The decision comes after Dunleavy proposed cutting WWAMI funding in 2019.

Kaden-Hoffmann completed his time in Bristol Bay earlier this month, and Stage will remain in Naknek until September before they both head back to school.

Get in touch with the author at [email protected] or 907-842-2200.