Dr. Judith Hunt, M.D., is one of the prominent faces of medical care in Rim Country. Along with her private practice, she is the co-founder of the Payson Christian Clinic and treats patients at Banner Payson Medical Center. Along with medical student, Maryssa Spires, of University of Arizona Medicine — Phoenix campus rural medicine training, she recently spoke with KRIM host Randy Roberson to extol the virtues of the Rural Medicine Program she has helped spearhead. The MHA Foundation is fundamental in sponsoring the rural medicine program with funding and administrative services.
Payson has always been a medical student-training site. Dr. Hunt and Dr. Alan Michels recognized that there were a few places in the country that had a formalized accredited rural training track. They wanted that.
Rural medicine is a specialty in and of itself. Coming to a small community without the proper training to practice rural medicine is just a recipe for disaster Hunt said. Students that are successful in rural medicine during their training feel a part of the community and return/replace or rejoin the practice of their mentors in these small communities.
“There is just a different mindset. It’s a feeling of ‘I’m part of this community,’ rather than ‘this is just my job,’” Dr. Hunt explains of the thinking that needs to occur to be happy in rural medicine. She admits it is not for every doctor.
“You see your patients in the grocery store, of course, but adds graciously, Payson is very respectful. It is a joy,” she said.
Spires is a third-year medical student. She has spent time in Phoenix and notes differences in the rural versus the urban setting.
She noticed first that there are obviously a lot fewer students in Payson. At the same time, she says the precepts (medical personnel who provide practical experience and training to students) and nurses are more open and welcoming here than in the Valley.
Overall her impressions are that she is able to connect on a more personal level here. She is really enjoying her time here so far. Spires is scheduled to be here for a year. She is here with her husband and two other students.
Spires notes that all of the patients have been very friendly and willing to have her learn by following along with them for their care over time.
She is interested in primary care and said she may lean toward pediatrics like Dr. Hunt, or family medicine like Dr. Michels, her other Payson mentor.
She said she chose the program because it was family oriented, she could come here with her husband, and it is community oriented.
Hunt and Michels have both stressed that interest in the community is key for medical students to succeed while in the program.
Hunt said that community involvement is a big factor in the program. The integrative aspect of the program is not glossed over. Students are expected to be immersive and become active members of their communities. Friendships and bonds are to be made.
Hunt and Michels stress leadership, civic duty, the rights and responsibilities, the pains and pleasures of living and learning healthy small town relationships.
This is the first accredited rural training track in the entire southwestern United States.
It has been a long road with unrelenting work from a host of local sources. The MHA Foundation has been fundamental, Hunt said. Ponderosa Family Care, the Payson Christian Clinic, and Banner Health helped as Michels and Hunt worked tirelessly on the project to make it come to fruition. Hunt credits God in the end.
Even early in her medical education, Hunt felt the pull toward rural training. Growing up in a small town rural setting, she sought out a rural training opportunity. Initially, after her big-city residency in Phoenix, she went south to Nogales, then to reservation lands. She asked herself hard questions like, “If I’m by myself, how will I help my patients?” to help her assess her readiness to practice in a small town. She then headed northward, having spent time here during her childhood.
Telemedicine has become front and center in regards to patient care. There has been no other option. COVID-19 has forced the issue. Hunt stated that patients have commented that telemedicine has the benefit of having the doctor’s undivided attention (no interruptions). It has given patients more time to really talk. Hunt chuckles that there could be a riot by patients if anyone talks of taking away telemedicine visits.
“Our patients are being taken care of much better,” Hunt said.
So the quality of care has gone up. Nobody can complain about that.
This rural medical training track opportunity for students in Payson “is a symbiotic educational experience, learning from each other — doctor and patient. This is how we are going to train stellar doctors. The commitment to the community becomes an overwhelming desire. That relationship with people,” said Hunt.
“Once that relationship has been established. You can’t forget it,” she concludes.