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U of M medical student studying under Bemidji physicians

About 200 miles northwest of the Twin Cities, University of Minnesota medical student Leigh Berven is discovering life as a rural physician.

Berven arrived in Bemidji in October to gain rural medical experience as part of U of M's Rural Physician Associate Program. RPAP places third-year medical students with an interest in developing rural practice skills in communities across greater Minnesota for nine months under the supervision of local physicians.

The program began in 1971 at the request of the state Legislature to address the shortage of rural physicians in Minnesota, said Bill Fricke, program administrator.

"It has been a successful program," said Fricke, noting that 61 percent of former RPAP students are practicing in rural Minnesota, including some who practice in Bemidji.

Berven, who is making rotations at MeritCare Bemidji and North Country Regional Hospital, said RPAP allows her to have more one-on-one contact with physicians and hands-on experiences than if she were making rotations at a larger facility in the Twin Cities.

"I feel like you learn a lot more by doing that," she said.

Since arriving in Bemidji, Berven's experiences have ranged from assisting with surgery to delivering babies.

"You get to do a lot of different areas," she said.

Besides surgery and obstetrics and gynecology, Berven's rotations include family medicine, urology, orthopedic surgery and internal medicine.

Although Berven said she has enjoyed all her rotations, she said she is especially interested in obstetrics and gynecology and family medicine.

Berven made her obstetrics and gynecology rotation in November and December.

"And I absolutely loved it," she said. "Although I really do like family medicine, too."

Berven said she has always been interested in woman's health and also has an interest in adolescent medicine and family planning. She said she likes that obstetrics and gynecology encompasses care for women from teens to older adulthood and involves a variety of work, from clinic visits to surgery to deliveries.

The ability to see patients of all ages is also what attracts Berven to family medicine. She added that this area is appealing because family physicians see a variety of issues.

This fall, Berven will decide what area of medicine she will pursue and begin applying for residencies. But before starting her residency, she will return to the Twin Cities for her second year of rotations.

One of the things Berven said she is learning about herself while working in Bemidji is that she enjoys surgery.

"I feel like more and more I kind of would like surgery to be part of my career," she said.

With supervision, Berven delivered about 15-20 babies and assisted with surgical procedures during her obstetrics and gynecology rotation, said Dr. Mark Colliton, obstetrics and gynecology specialist at MeritCare Bemidji. He said Berven also was involved in office visits during the rotation.

"She's been doing just an excellent job here," said Colliton, who is Berven's preceptor in obstetrics and gynecology.

"She's an excellent student and patients respond very well to her," said Dr. Dave VanEngelenhoven, who is Berven's preceptor in the area of family medicine at MeritCare Bemidji.

Besides clinic visits, family practice in rural areas can also encompass work including hospital care, nursing home care and baby deliveries, the family medicine doctor said.

Berven said the staff in Bemidji has made her feel part of the health care team.

"Every single person I've worked with in Bemidji has been so great," she said.

Berven is not only working with Bemidji physicians, but with others in the community. As part of RPAP, students develop a health improvement project in collaboration with their communities.

Berven is working with the Bemidji-based Sexual assault Multidisciplinary Action Response Team, which is developing a protocol for area agencies to refer to when sexual assault victims seek services.

Regardless of whether she returns to a rural setting to practice medicine in the future, Berven, who grew up near Stillwater, Minn., said her RPAP experience is valuable.

"I'm really glad I did this," she said.