medical students

Julia Nguyen, a second-year medical student part of the Rural Certificate of Distinction program, worked with Dr. Judith Hunt in 2019.

Over a dozen University of Arizona College of Medicine –Phoenix students are going to be taking a very close two-year look at community needs in Tonto Basin. The hope of the study is to provide some significant benefit to the people who live there.

The 14 medical students are in Rim Country as part of a joint effort by the University of Arizona College of Medicine – Phoenix and the Eastern Arizona Health Education Center. In completing this two-year study they are producing their master’s-level community projects.

This is the second two-year group of medical students working in Rim Country. The first group wrapped up its two-year stint a couple months ago, with a focus mainly on Payson.

This next group has already started to collect information on the Tonto Basin community, focusing on health-related concerns for the community. The students are initially performing assessments to determine the need for things like medical clinics, counseling services, parks, and other health and healthy lifestyle concerns.

Payson physician Dr. Judith Hunt is site director for the University of Arizona College of Medicine – Phoenix program Rim Country.

She helps head up the group’s focus and training. Hunt has been practicing medicine and training medical students and residents in Payson for nearly 25 years.

“These health professional students are the best and brightest. They’re our future. To have them learn about and contribute to our community is a priceless gift. Hopefully, they will consider Rim Country when choosing their position as a health professional. While having this type of study performed could produce numerous benefits for the community over time, when it comes to obtaining government grants and providing higher caliber health-related services, the students seem pretty excited,” Hunt said.

“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,” she said.

Each year, Hunt trains about 15 health professional students and residents from various locations across the country, in addition to those from the University of Arizona College of Medicine – Phoenix. She has worked with students from 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.”

Not all the students Hunt works with are in two-year rotations.

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.

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

Following their initial public interview meeting in Tonto Basin, one of the students said to Dr. Hunt, “I am inspired by the people we talked to from Tonto Basin, by the faculty of the program, and by the students assigned to our group. I’m also incredibly grateful for the opportunity to be a part of this program and to learn about Tonto Basin. The sense of community, resilience, and perseverance is evident, along with a sense of pride in the area. I also sense a theme of hope for positive change in Tonto Basin with the grant for the Tonto Creek bridge being awarded. I’m eager to visit the community and hope to be a part of the positive change for the community over the next two years.”

Randy Roberson contributed to this story.

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