Many of the Montana high school students attending a health care careers camp in Billings this week haven’t grown up around doctors.
They, like thousands of rural Montanans, must travel to another town, and sometimes the next county, to receive even primary care. So imagining themselves one day wearing a white coat and practicing medicine can seem like a remote proposition.
The MedStart Camp, funded by the Montana Area Health Education Center, aims to put the wide world of health care within reach of these promising high school juniors and seniors. It’s one way AHEC hopes to encourage young Montanans to study and practice medicine, a field in high demand in the state’s rural areas, AHEC Eastern region director Mary Helgeson said.
Ten counties in the state don’t have any practicing physicians, and all but a few are designated by the federal government as primary-care physician shortage areas, according to a 2011 state report.
MedStart camps have been offered around the state for the past few years, including in Missoula and Great Falls this summer. The free and competitive program targets students from rural or underprivileged backgrounds.
“We want to get them excited so they’ll get their education and go back to their communities,” Helgeson said.
During the weeklong Billings camp, 27 student participants are measuring vital signs at City College Billings, shadowing professionals at area hospitals, obtaining X-rays of their cellphones and taking part in a mock search-and-rescue operation in Red Lodge.
On Tuesday they were at RiverStone Health to learn about the services provided by Yellowstone County’s public health department.
“What we kind of consider ourselves is the safety net of the community,” dental program manager Becky Cassidy said, explaining the clinic’s sliding fees based on each patient’s ability to pay.
Cassidy and a pair of clinic staff outlined career pathways in dentistry before challenging the students to sculpt a tooth model from clay.
They highlighted some of the professional benefits of the specialty — normal working hours, training that doesn’t require residency — and gave a mini lesson on the art and science of oral care.
“One thing you get in dentistry that you don’t get in the medical field is art,” said Dr. David Duniven, a dental resident at RiverStone Health.
None of the students in this group were planning to become dentists, they said. Instead, there were aspiring pediatric nurses, cardiologists and physicians.
The roots of the students’ interest in medicine were largely personal.
For Monica Suek, of Valier, family heart problems inspired her interest.
Red Lodge senior Tyler Metcalf said he knew health care was his calling when, a few years ago, someone collapsed on the track field at his high school.
“I was the only one who knew CPR, and I saved him,” Metcalf said. He hopes to become a trauma nurse.
Rylee Perkins, from Roberts, said she’s motivated by peers who have been stricken by life-threatening illness.
“When I was in third grade, my best friend was diagnosed with cancer,” Perkins said.
Learning about the array of career opportunities often changes participants’ perception of the field, North Central AHEC director Shani Rich said, while for others the experience cements their passion.
“It definitely widens their knowledge as far as what health care is,” she said.