The University of North Dakota School of Medicine and Health Sciences is the top medical school in the country for producing family medicine physicians, according to rankings released by the American Academy of Family Physicians. UND ranks first among the country's 132 accredited medical schools.
Based on a three-year average for the period ending in October 2009, more than 20 percent of UND's graduates have entered an accredited family medicine residency program.
"We're very pleased and proud that for a number of years we've ranked so highly in a national survey as far as the percent of our class going into family practice. That is important for the state and for similar regions where family medicine is so very important to the state's healthcare needs," Dr. Joshua Wynne, interim dean of the UND School of Medicine and Health Sciences and senior executive vice president for health affairs, said.
Katina Tengesdal/MDN - - The Center for Family Medicine in Minot provides family medicine residency training for medical school graduates.
Wynne credits the school's programs and efforts for the high number of graduates entering family medicine. He explained that the selection of medical students plays a role.
"The vast majority of our applicants and the people we match actually come from North Dakota, and many come from a rural background where family medicine physicians play a very important role," Wynne said.
"We select students who have a strong connection to North Dakota and have an awareness of both rural and family practice," he added.
In addition to selecting students more inclined to go into family medicine, the school's curriculum and programs encourage students to head in that direction.
"In their clinical years, their third and fourth years, they have a required rotation where they go through family medicine, often in a rural environment," Wynne said. "A number of students are also exposed to ROME, the Rural Opportunities in Medical Education program."
As a part of the ROME program, Wynne explained, students go to smaller communities around the state and are paired with family physicians in those communities to gain one-on-one exposure to a family physician and to see what their practice is like.
Additional programs steer students toward family medicine.
The Students/Resident Experiences and Rotations in Community Health program, has provided health profession students an opportunity to spend a month working in interdisciplinary teams in rural North Dakota communities.
The RuralMed Scholarship program offers to pay for a student's full tuition for four years of medical school if students agree to pursue a career in family medicine and to practice full time in rural North Dakota for five years after completing their residency training.
Dr. Mark Longmuir, a family medicine resident currently working at the UND Center for Family Medicine in Minot, is one such graduate who has chosen family medicine. Longmuir is a Stanley native and plans to practice in western North Dakota after he completes his residency.
"I chose family medicine because you get to do such a variety of things, anything from pediatrics through obstetrics through internal medicine," Longmuir said. "The small-group learning at UND helped, too. You'd have seven or eight medical students in a room, and that would lead me more toward general practice."
"Family practice is also a great thing if you want to stay in rural North Dakota. It bodes well for family life, you're seeing kids through the elderly and it gives you a better overall perspective," he added.
Longmuir said many graduates may shy away from family medicine for financial reasons.
"Specialties in medicine pay quite a bit more, and when you have an average $150,000 in debt after graduating medical school, some are tempted to pick an area where they can make that money back quickly," Longmuir said.
"For the undergrads I've talked to, I've told them not to let the money lead them in any direction, but to do what they want to do," he added.
Wynne explained that the RuralMed Scholarship program was began for just that reason.
"The accumulative debt of medical students might eliminate some of their career choices, but this program would remove that barrier and encourage even more students to go into family medicine," Wynne said.
For Longmuir, who has two years of residency training left, the influence of family values and a sense of community have encouraged him that he's made the right choice.
"I have interviewed in different locations in North Dakota, and the goal is to find a community that fits and stay there. Both my wife and I were raised in one community, and we'd like our kids to have that experience," Longmuir said.
"It has been consistent through the UND medical school and the residency program that everyone is friendly and open, and they let you try out new things," he added. "The people are just friendly and willing to help out."
Wynne, who is encouraged by the number of graduates choosing family medicine, believes the school can do even better.
"We do well with the percentage of the class going into family medicine, and we'd like to do even better, in particular in rural areas where we know there is an ongoing need," Wynne said. "We are thinking about other approaches that might be helpful."