A Rural Doctor in the Making

In rural Minnesota, doctors are hard to come by. Most medical school graduates these days zero in on specialties and practice in the city, where the hours are shorter and the pay is better. Nationally, fewer than 10 percent of graduates become general practitioners and an even smaller sliver put out a shingle in a small town.

It’s a topic of great concern in outstate Minnesota, where an aging population is putting a strain on services and some hospitals have been trying to fill open positions for years. That’s part of why Ground Level, in our quest to explore communities facing the big issues of the day, is adding rural health care to the topics we’re focusing on.

If you ask Krista Stowe, a first year medical student at the U of M Duluth, which turns out more rural physicians than any other school in the country, she can’t imagine practicing anywhere but a small community.

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“A doctor here in Duluth calls all his patients himself with lab results. There are still docs in Bigfork who will do a home visit. I think that’s respectful to the patient. A patient who is 84 and has potential pneumonia, you don’t want them to have to travel. There is a sense of compassion and connectedness. That’s what I would expect in a small community.”

Stowe hails from Bemidji–the U of M Duluth favors admissions candidates from smaller towns since they are more likely to want to practice there–where both her parents are teachers. “I was very interested in science,” she says. “My parents are big supporters of community involvement and giving back to the community through volunteering. I grew up thinking I wanted to help people. Medicine is the perfect combination of helping and science.”

After “shadowing” doctors in Rochester and the Twin Cities, says Stowe, “I knew I really didn’t like being in the big city. I like small rural Minnesota. It’s what I grew up with and is a huge part of why I want to go back. I don’t need two shopping centers. I like nature and there are a lot of good people in rural communities.”

As a rural family doc in the making, Stowe is a hot commodity and she’s been told by instructors to refrain from accepting job offers until she’s further along in her schooling. (Stowe notes that she hasn’t received any offers yet.)

The job will have its tough aspects too, she says, like long stretches on call and the potential heartbreak of losing a patient who is also a close friend. Also, unlike in the city, rural doctors have very little anonymity.

“For me, I do like my own personal space,” Stowe says. “But I think the benefits outweigh what you give up for that. Your patients are going to see if you put two packs of Oreos in your grocery cart while you’ve been telling them to eat healthy. It’s challenging. But you can have your home set away from the workings of the city. You can find your own meditation. That’s easier in a rural community.”

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