For a minute, the crackling sounded like the Zoom call was crashing.
Turns out, it was just a University of Utah physical therapy graduate student’s potato chip bag rustling in a classroom on Utah Tech University’s campus in Southern Utah. The fiber optics for the virtual lectures are that good.
Two years into the unique partnership between the state’s flagship university and its sister institution in St. George, nearly 30 students are enrolled in the Doctor of Physical Therapy program administered in Salt Lake City. The students participate virtually in lectures from College of Health Department of Physical Therapy and Athletic Training faculty based in Salt Lake City. The rest of the time, they are guided in lab trainings by four on-site faculty in St. George.
For students from small towns who want to focus on rural healthcare, the collaboration is a perfect fit, says Lee Dibble, department chair and professor in the Department of Physical Therapy and Athletic Training at the University of Utah. Students currently in the program come from communities in Wyoming, Idaho and Southwest Colorado, among others.
“As more prospective students get to know about our St. George pathway, the more we’re getting students who choose St. George for the types of experiences they can have here,” Dibble added. “At the same time, they get the high-quality physical therapy education that the University of Utah is known for.”
The visit to UTU was a key leg of President Taylor Randall’s second Utah Across Utah Tour—this time a single, three-day trip through Southern Utah. The 2023 road trip comes as Randall rounds out his second year leading Utah’s flagship institution of higher education, including stops at a wind farm in the Milford energy corridor, meetings (and helicopter rides) at Southern Utah University in Cedar City, and stops at Deseret Laboratories and Dixie High School in St. George.
“I’ve been at this for two years now, and one of the things I’ve noticed is that we tend to take our athletics competition on the sports field into academics,” said Randall. “I firmly believe that is counterproductive. These trips are about breaking down those barriers. We need to spend a lot more time thinking about what each other’s strengths are, and then trying to enhance each other to better serve our communities and our state.”
The focus of the president’s summer outreach effort was rural healthcare—amplifying and building upon existing partnerships with industry and other Utah colleges and universities.
“We’re working on a great partnership that benefits students. Our goal is to have our presence here help with Utah Tech’s efforts at student retention and to create pathways for healthcare careers,” said Eric Belair, the Doctor of Physical Therapy Program’s U admissions counselor based in St. George. “All of this benefits the U by having more qualified applicants, apply to our program and serve our communities in Southern Utah and surrounding areas.
Eccles School of Medicine Associate Dean of Admissions Benjamin Chan, a child and adolescent psychiatrist, shared a presentation about the Rural & Underserved Utah Training Experience (RUUTE) program with about 100 U alums and Southern Utah healthcare leaders.
About 15% of all Utahns live in rural and underserved areas, but only 7.9% of physicians practice in the same communities. An average of 19 new physicians per year would need to start their practices to replace retiring providers in rural and underserved areas to ensure that healthcare resources are distributed adequately.
Studies show that students from rural areas who receive multiple years of rural medical training and exposure are 10 times more likely to practice in the same area. RUUTE, an intensive curriculum with community preceptors (trainers) has increased rural recruitment significantly.
“We want our students who are from these communities to return to their roots. Medical students are like stem cells—they form the foundation of rural healthcare,” said Chan. “The key is making sure our students have as many opportunities as possible to come and learn in the communities they are from.”
RUUTE is tackling the challenge of rural healthcare with several strategic programs, including:
- RUUTE Undergraduate Ambassadors, who teach students in rural middle schools who are interested in pursuing careers in healthcare. So far, 4 RUUTE Undergraduate Ambassadors from Utah Tech University have engaged 384 rural middle school students in the St. George area.
- Summer Undergraduate Research Experience (SURE), which brings rural high school students to the U campus to work in research labs for 10 weeks during the summer.
- RUUTE Scholars, which places 20 medical students in Washington County and other rural areas in Utah for clinical rotations and community experiences during their medical school training.
- Rural Outreach Program (ROP), which allows medical students to practice teaching and provide hands-on instruction to students while sharing their own journeys to medical school. So far, three students completed the program and reached 120 students at three St. George high schools.