By Martin Ross
When Paul Pedersen began his practice in Bloomington, medical procedures that are today considered commonplace were extremely rare. “We were talking about getting CT scans,” he says of the crucial cancer-detection tool that has since come into widespread use.
Thirty years later, Dr. Pedersen is vice president and chief medical officer at Bloomington’s OSF-St. Joseph Medical Center, a key health-care facility within a bustling Central Illinois hub.
Pedersen hasn’t forgotten the boost from Illinois Farm Bureau’s Rural Illinois Medical Student Assistance Program (RIMSAP) that helped launch his career. The program, founded in 1948, provides recommendations and low-interest loans for prospective rural Illinois doctors. Pedersen has served for nearly 20 years on RIMSAP’s selection committee.
A concentration of physicians goes into urban or suburban communities, Pedersen says, not only for lifestyle reasons, but also because of technology gaps between urban and rural communities. Serving rural patients requires “a different commitment,” he stresses.
University of Illinois medical school graduate and RIMSAP participant Nicole Kennedy has that commitment. The 2002 Carlyle High School graduate is a family practice intern in Greenwood, S.C., on a track to practice in a rural area in Illinois, “likely south of Springfield,” she says.
“I want to have that practice I can stay with and where I know my patients,” Kennedy says. “I did a rural student preceptor program for 6½ months my third year of medical school at a family practice in Harrisburg in Southern Illinois. I really got to see what a smaller-town physician can do, how they can build relationships with their patients.”
That close connection with patients is important to Kennedy.
“It makes a big difference when you know who’s coming in,” she says. “You may know what’s going on in their family – often, I would see Grandma, Mom and the child, sometimes all in the same day. You can do that as a family physician.”
Kennedy hopes to focus on women’s health, though she has concerns about medical malpractice awards in the state’s southern region. “The situation isn’t the best in Illinois right now for family physicians to do obstetrics,” she says.
Past RIMSAP participant Carrie Sharkey Asner now trains third-year med students at the U of I College of Medicine at Rockford’s Rockton Family Practice Clinic. The students alone see, on average, one patient every hour.
“Our goal is to try to get people to go into family practice when they see how much ‘fun’ we have,” says Asner, a mother of three and wife of a neurosurgeon.
Asner, who began practicing in 1991, helps provide prenatal care and guidance for clinic clients. She sees programs such as RIMSAP as crucial to establishing a comfortable and trustworthy “patient home” that fosters preventative care and maintenance and, in turn, reduces the need for – and potential costs of – later emergency care.
“If a patient sees a provider consistently and the patient’s asthma is starting to get a little out of control, we can begin to address it then, instead of waiting for it to get bad and him having to go to an emergency room,” Asner says.
Also vital in creating that patient-centric environment is health literacy, or patient education through simple English rather than complicated med-school jargon.
“Make sure you use the common words,” Asner explains. “Make sure you use examples, like, ‘The blood vessels are like pipes.’”
Back in Bloomington, Pedersen recalls how he was selected for the RIMSAP program following his 1973 graduation from Illinois Wesleyan University, earning recommendations critical to admission into the U of I College of Medicine.
Pedersen grew up in Belvidere, which at the time was a community of roughly 15,000. College preparation at Pedersen’s small high school “was not as extensive as it might have been,” he says. While he graduated from initially “decent” grades to high marks at Wesleyan, his cumulative grade point average might not have made him a strong candidate for the U of I program.
“RIMSAP allowed me to get into medical school,” he says.
Pedersen’s wife, Ginni, was a Chicago-area nurse, and he transferred to the Windy City for his medical education and residency. In 1980, he returned to work with a quartet of general internists in Bloomington-Normal – then a far smaller community eligible for service under RIMSAP obligations.
Nearly half his patients were scattered through surrounding rural towns such as Lexington, Chenoa and Colfax. “To the limit I practice medicine nowadays, they still are,” Pedersen says.
After all, for RIMSAP participants such as Pedersen, providing medical care to rural communities isn’t just important – it’s the foundation of their career.