Julia Nguyen, a second-year medical student part of the Rural Certificate of Distinction program, is working with Dr. Judith Hunt.

Dr. Judith Hunt’s classroom is 100 miles north of the downtown Phoenix Biomedical Campus in Payson.

She not only trains University of Arizona College of Medicine – Phoenix students in rural health, but she welcomes them into her home to stay and experience the life of a small-town physician.

“The best part of rural medicine is the care of the community,” Hunt said. “There is nothing that I would trade for being able to see a baby that I helped care for throughout the years, now married with their own children. It’s just amazing to be a part of that young person’s life all the way through.”

Hunt has been practicing medicine and training medical students and residents in Payson for nearly 22 years.

Hunt, who is board certified in internal medicine, pediatrics and adolescent medicine, was the first pediatrician in Payson.

She sees more than 60 patients a week, from newborns to patients who are 100 years old.

To add to her busy schedule, Hunt also trains medical students who rotate into the Payson hospital. She is site director for the College’s Rural clerkship in Payson.

“My patients are my friends and my neighbors,” Hunt said. “The children I care for in my practice are children I coached in swim team and I was there when many of these patients were born. Students immediately notice this relationship that we have with our patients. Not often in Phoenix will a doctor leave their clinic and meet their patient outside of the practice. Here, we meet our patients in grocery stores, in parks, on the sports field, and at church.”

Each year, Hunt trains about 15 health professional students and residents from various locations across the country, including the University of Arizona College of Medicine – Phoenix, the University of Tennessee, Marquette University and University of Southern California.

“Rural medicine is a specialty in itself,” Hunt said. “It allows students to begin to see themselves in a rural area. The country has a big challenge in finding physicians for rural areas and until a student has experienced living in a rural community and experienced rural medicine, it’s going to be difficult for just a lecture to really paint a picture of what it is really like to be a rural doctor.”

To address the physician shortage and increase the number of graduates who practice in a rural setting, the University of Arizona College of Medicine – Phoenix started a Rural Health Certificate of Distinction (COD) program. Hunt is a professor in the Rural Health Program at the college and trains many of the students who participate in this COD.

The Rural COD, led by Dr. Jonathan Cartsonis allows students to engage with diverse rural Arizona and Southwest communities.

Students complete as much as six months of clerkship training in the Navajo Nation, Prescott, Payson or Yuma.

“One in 10 physicians practice rural medicine even though two in 10 Arizonans live in a rural setting,” Cartsonis said. “Rural populations experience more chronic diseases like diabetes, cancer and heart disease. This is related to the fact that more elderly are living in rural communities than urban. Students need to know this.”

Students accepted into the COD program undertake a four-year course of preparation that includes seminars, mentorship, rural clerkship and pre-clerkship clinical experience, among other requirements. COD students complete a four-week summer rural pre-clinical experience between their first and second year and a 15-week rural clerkship during their third year.

Hunt is currently working with Julia Nguyen, a second-year medical student who is part of the Rural COD program. Nguyen recently completed her one-month pre-clerkship experience.

“I had the wonderful opportunity to stay with Dr. Hunt, a beloved and valued member of this community,” Nguyen said. “I loved every single moment of it. I believe the Rural Health COD will open up my eyes to many more problems that still exist in rural regions. I hope that these experiences will help me become a better physician in the future, especially in rural practices that can be vastly different from those in the city or urban regions.”

Students become part of the community during their rural rotations.

They complete out-patient and in-patient rotations with Hunt and other physicians in Payson.

They live with Hunt and her family during their rotations, participate in community events and help coach after-school programs like soccer practices.

“Dr. Hunt and I agree that there is nothing better than hands-on training,” Cartsonis said. “It’s one thing to watch a PowerPoint about rural parts of Arizona that have no electricity or even water, but it’s a whole different experience to work around barriers with patients who live in those circumstances. Under the one-on-one guidance of preceptors like Dr. Hunt, students appreciate rural health challenges and become adept at finding workarounds. They get out of the urban bubble and challenge themselves.”

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