Ten years ago, the UK College of Medicine recruited four of its second-year medical students for an educational experiment. With a goal of preparing more physicians to practice in the rural areas of the Commonwealth and beyond, the college asked these students to immerse themselves in small-town Kentucky, learning rural medicine onsite at a rural medical campus in Morehead.

The experiment was not only successful, but also built the foundation for what has evolved into a cutting-edge program helping address the physician shortage in Kentucky.

Those four individuals – Ilva Iriarte, MD; Larissa Kern, MD; Chadwick Knight, MD; and Sarah Tibbs, MD – made up the first graduating class of what is now called the Rural Physician Leadership Program. Since its first year, the program’s graduating class tripled in size, and the program continues to graduate 12-14 medical students each spring who are equipped to practice medicine in small communities that need health care.

“The idea behind the original program truly has worked, that if you take students from rural communities and train them to be physicians, they want to go back and practice in those rural communities,” Rebecca Todd, MD, assistant dean for RPLP, said.

Dr. Todd has been involved with the program since the beginning and has led it for the last four years, overseeing much of the program’s transformation. Ten years in, the program now has a robust set of alumni. Many come back to mentor current students, and five have been back to teach through St. Claire HealthCare, the program’s clinical partner. Three alumni are teaching in the greater Morehead area, and one is even joining Dr. Todd as a partner in August.

In total, RPLP has had nearly 100 graduates as of May 2022.

Dr. Todd has found that RPLP brings out the best of all medical training, combining old and new components of effective medical education. Like an apprenticeship, RPLP provides students opportunities to work one-on-one with physicians in the area. Students benefit from the small class size, which allows for strong bonds with faculty and more chances to shadow professionals and assist in procedures. At the same time, students are part of the larger UK College of Medicine network, learning from the same high-standard, up-to-date curriculum that other students follow at other campuses in Lexington, Northern Kentucky, and Bowling Green.

Thanks to partnerships with St. Claire HealthCare and Morehead State University, the program offers students additional opportunities for rural clinical experiences and educational advancement.

“The success of the program really hinges on the amazing students and faculty that we have,” Dr. Todd said. “The vast majority of our faculty are volunteer faculty, and they are wonderful. They do this because they love teaching, and they want to help more doctors get qualified and come to work in rural areas.”

What might be most distinct about the program, however, is how it fosters connection to a small community. Ashley Brown, MD, RPLP director of admissions and outreach, is an alumna of RPLP who now works as an emergency physician at St. Claire HealthCare. She said the small-town charm students experience in RPLP will continue as they graduate and practice in community settings.

“When I’m at the grocery store, or out to the gas station, I see my patients. They recognize me. They know my family when they come into clinic,” Dr. Brown said. “That’s the best part about it.”

Dr. Todd shares a similar experience. When she takes her evening jog or a walk downtown with her family, she inevitably runs into one of her students, staff, or fellow faculty members. She recalls in the wintertime when a student was blocked by a downed tree across her road. All that student had to do was call Bodie Stevens, RPLP site administrator, and thanks to his connections with the city, the tree was removed 30 minutes later.

“These are just really unique experiences that you don’t necessarily get to have when you’re at a really big tertiary center,” Dr. Todd said.

You can read this story and much more in our summer 2022 edition of UK Medicine magazine.
The inaugural class of the Rural Physician Leadership Program graduated in 2012 and included Larissa Kern, MD; Chadwick Knight, MD; Ilva Iriarte, MD; and Sarah Tibbs, MD.