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<p> Robin Danek, MPH, and Ellen Ireland, PhD, MPH,&nbsp;share details on the Rural Health Scholarly Concentration, which&nbsp;<span style="color: rgb(51, 51, 51);">offers students an opportunity to learn and engage with rural communities through public health research.</span></p>

In their words: Scholarly Concentration Q&A with Rural Health co-directors

map shows rural health concentration location in terre haute

In 2019, IU School of Medicine launched Scholarly Concentrations. To help students decide if a concentration topic is the right fit, concentration co-directors shared the inside scoop—from why they got involved in the concentration to how a specific topic can help students reach their goals.

Topic: Rural Health
Location: Terre Haute
Co-Directors: Robin Danek, MPH, and Ellen Ireland, PhD, MPH

Introduce yourself. Who are you and why did you decide to become involved in this Scholarly Concentration topic?

Ellen Ireland, PhD, MPH: I am currently a visiting lecturer in family medicine at IU School of Medicine-Terre Haute. I did my PhD studies in Bloomington and my MPH in Iowa City, Iowa. Before that, I grew up in a small town in Iowa, where I had a lot of first-hand experience with rural health concerns. I have also been lucky to have mentored students in the Community Health Project here in the Rural Medicine Track, so I already have insight into the kinds of health concerns students will see around this region.

Robin Danek, MPH: I was born and raised in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and received my bachelor’s degree from the University of Iowa. In 2008, I received my Master’s in Public Health from West Virginia University. I am currently a PhD candidate in health policy and management at the Richard M. Fairbanks School of Public Health at IUPUI. My official title at IU School of Medicine-Terre Haute is a rural medical education program manager. In real world terms that means I am primarily in charge of mentoring students through their public health research projects such as the Community Health Project. I also teach students the fundamentals of public health and basic research methods. The Community Health Project has provided me with an opportunity to teach students about public health and basic research methods. I see the Rural Health Scholarly Concentration as an opportunity to broaden our reach even more by educating students more formally about the interplay between medicine and public health, especially as it relates to working with rural populations.

Tell us about your experience related to the concentration topic.

Ireland: My research area has mostly been on the environmental health aspects of rural communities. All of the community and behavioral health research that I’ve done involves a rural focus, but in really different milieu—agricultural waste exposures, radon in homes, consumption of local fish, beliefs about invasive species.

Danek: My research experiences cover a broad range of topics, all of which have in some way been influenced by interests in rural populations and educating those working in rural health care. In the past, I have studied nutrition education and the role it plays in preparing physicians to inform their patients. In particular, the differences in rural and urban physicians’ perceptions of their role in educating patients. My current interests include substance use (in particular, Opioid Use Disorder), and its disproportionate effect on rural populations. Likewise, I’m also interested in access to mental health services (including substance use treatment centers) in rural areas, and the challenges rural physicians face in treating their rural patients with substance use problems.

What are you most excited about in regards to Scholarly Concentrations and your concentration topic?

Ireland: I’m most excited about the Rural and Agricultural Health course. I took a similar course once, and it was a much juicier topic than I had anticipated. Also, because there are fewer studies done in rural areas in general, I think it will give the students a real opportunity to be creative in selecting topics for their studies.

Danek: I was primarily hired to mentor students on their Community Health Projects. However, we have expanded the program to give students real, tangible experiences in conducting research and understanding the fundamentals of public health through more extended and intensive research studies. I’m excited about the Scholarly Concentration in Rural Health because it will provide us with a platform to educate students about working in rural areas through tailored courses for those interested in learning about rural populations. Likewise, it will give us the ability to work with students from all over the state of Indiana, with different backgrounds and experiences.

What are the three most important or interesting things students should know about this concentration?

  1. Rural communities are suffering; rates of drug addiction, chronic disease and suicide are high among this particular group. Physicians, especially those interested in primary care or working in a rural area, could benefit tremendously from the extra coursework and projects involved with the Rural Health Scholarly Concentration.
  2. Students in the Rural Health Scholarly Concentration will receive one-on-one attention and be exposed to the fundamentals of research and public health.
  3. “Rural” does not mean “boring.”

How is this concentration beneficial to a student’s personal and professional goals?

This concentration is an excellent opportunity for students who want to go into family medicine to learn about rural communities and their unique concerns. Students who participate in the Rural Health Scholarly Concentration will learn about the fundamentals of public health and research methods commonly used in public health research. Likewise, students will learn about the intersection between public health and medicine as well as how living in a rural community affects overall health outcomes for this population.

Some students may have a hard time deciding which concentration to choose. How can a student decide if this topic is the best fit for them?

This topic would be the best fit for someone who wants to work in a rural area/small town, or a critical access hospital. It may also appeal to students who haven’t decided where they would like to go but are originally from a more rural part of the Midwest. Also, anyone working in primary care would benefit from this program, as even those who plan to work in urban areas or academic medical centers will most likely care for patients from rural areas. It is essential that physicians in all specialties know how to care for this population and understand their unique challenges and needs.

What are the special resources and expertise on this concentration’s home campus?

The co-directors are both public health specialists with advanced degrees in public health, along with several years of community research experience. IU School of Medicine-Terre Haute is the headquarters for the Rural Medical Education Program, which trains students to work in rural areas. The Rural Medical Education Program has over the years developed connections with rural practitioners and critical access hospitals around the state.

What is the academic and social culture like on the home campus?

It’s a small campus, which means as much one-on-one time with your instructors as you can stand. The small number of students on campus, students will receive help tailoring their projects to their needs and interests.

You provided some examples of potential projects for this concentration. Can you also provide some more details and examples of what one or two different projects could look like?

Many of the Scholarly Concentration projects and products will mimic the Community Health Project (CHP), a year-long, longitudinal public health project that IU School of Medicine-Terre Haute Rural Medical Education Program students must complete for graduation. For the Rural Health Scholarly Concentration, students will conduct a truncated version of the CHP. Past projects have included investigations into the correlation between participants’ insurance status and ED visits for non-emergent reasons, as well as the relationship between breastfeeding success and postpartum depression.

The views expressed in this content represent the perspective and opinions of the author and may or may not represent the position of Indiana University School of Medicine.
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