Country Doctors

By: Brock Bergey Email
By: Brock Bergey Email

Posted Tuesday --- February 12, 2008 -- 10:00pm

Dr. June Lewandoski grew up in a town of 50,000. She works in a community of less than 5,000.

"It was a huge change," she says.

But, after six years on the job, Dr. Lewandoski feels right at home in Mauston, where her patients are also her neighbors.

"As a family physician, that's an important part for me, knowing the patients, knowing about their family and their life and their community, so I can treat the whole person."

However, today, the small-town way of life is not appealing to most doctors and their significant others. Just 10% of physicians practice in rural America, home to 1/4 of the nation's population.

"We're seeing really a growing shortage of physicians, which really, then, has a direct impact on access to health care," says Dr. Byron Crouse.

Dr. Crouse is in charge of a new program at the UW School of Medicine and Public Health. It's called WARM, the Wisconsin Academy for Rural Medicine.

"We're really looking at who we are bringing to the medical school and where their training taking place." he adds.

Dr. Crouse says students who are from rural areas are the best candidates.

"That's something that is really exciting to me," says Nathan Vakhaira.

The doctor-to-be grew up in McFarland. He's one of five first-year med students enrolled in WARM.

The curriculum keeps Nathan in Madison two years. Then, it's time to pack his bags for real-world experience outside the big city. It's a journey the young husband and father is anxious to begin.

"I think it's a perfect place for us to start a family," he says. "Where you have good schools and community."

Recruiting doctors is one thing. Retaining them is another. Pay is often viewed as an issue. But, in this case, bigger doesn't always mean better.

"If anything I think it's a little better in order to attract people out to the rural communities," says Dr. Lewandoski.

She also has high praises for the technology available at her work site. The challenge is finding staff willing to operate it.

"Are we ever going to fill all these areas? No," says Dr. Crouse.

But, he says future doctors like Nathan are part of the solution.

"By raising aspirations to work in rural communities, I think those are the types of things that will have a lasting impact on rural healthcare," comments Nathan.

Nathan's not sure where he'll end up, but wherever it is, he plans to stay there and become part of that community.

Dr. Lewandoski's roots are planted in Mauston. She sees this as the last stop in her medical career.

"I do, as long as the location remains viable and I think it will," she concludes.

Dr. Crouse says by the year 2015 WARM will be placing 25 new doctors in rural areas, every year.

Other states have similar programs, but Wisconsin is unique in the sense it allows students to study specialty areas, not just primary care.

To learn more about WARM, including loan repayment options, specific to rural health care visit our news links section.

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