MHA container home Luke Wohlford

Luke Wohlford, a third-year medical student from the Longitudinal Integrated Curriculum program at the University of Arizona’s College of Medicine-Phoenix Rural Training Program, hopes he can move into the container home behind him soon.

All that stands between moving the first rural medical student into the MHA Foundation’s new container dorm on South Ponderosa Street — a couple of temperature controls.

The foundation had hoped to complete construction by May or June on a three-bedroom, three-bath dorm, but “COVID-19 has been a real challenge,” said Kenny Evans, chair of the MHA Foundation, pointing to wires creeping out of two walls.

The lack of a heating/cooling control panel has delayed the certificate of occupancy from the town, but that didn’t stop the MHA Foundation from celebrating this week.

On Aug. 11, Evans and several MHA Foundation board members held a ribbon cutting with members of the Rim Country Regional Chamber of Commerce, Payson Councilor Barbara Underwood and Luke Wohlford, a third-year medical student from the Longitudinal Integrated Curriculum program at the University of Arizona’s College of Medicine-Phoenix Rural Training Program.

Wohlford will be the first student from the medical school program to move into the container home.

For the past few years, the MHA Foundation, in partnership with the U of A, has worked to create and get accreditation for a two-year rural medical school curriculum, focusing on the unique needs of doctors that work in rural areas.

Data shows a looming crisis in doctors willing to practice in rural communities.

An integral part of the program’s curriculum has students spend a year or two in a rural community to experience and understand the unique issues of rural health care — exactly why Wohlford chose this path in his medical education.

In a rural setting, doctors handle more unique situations than do their counterparts in the urban setting, he said. Already, Wohlford has collaborated with many different specialists, forcing him to wear many hats to solve “complex problems.”

To top it off, he likes rural communities.

“I’m attracted to the unique population,” he said. “Everyone knows everyone.”

The container dorm Wohlford will move into served as a prototype for the MHA Foundation. Before committing to building housing for at least 100 students, the foundation wanted to check on the feasibility and cost effectiveness of converting containers into dorms. So far, the container homes have more than met the expectations of Evans and the MHA board.

“This is phase one,” he said of future dorms.

The square foot cost to build the container home came to about $100, said Evans. That included finish work — floors, doors, painting, etc.

In comparison, contractors start at $140 per square foot and go up to $200 or higher, according to various construction websites.

The other benefit? Container homes can adapt to “undulating land,” said Evans.

A particular issue in Rim Country, especially on the land the MHA Foundation acquired from the Forest Service off of State Route 260.

Not only has the foundation launched a rural medical school program, but it will provide funding to increase the Eastern Arizona College nursing program from 20 students a year to 128.

“At least 100 of those won’t find housing in Rim Country,” said Evans.

Payson has few rental properties. If the MHA Foundation delivers on its mission to bring education and health to Rim Country, it will need a lot of space to house those students.

Contact the reporter at mnelson@payson.com

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