Program at SIU School of Medicine graduates five physicians — one from Quincy — who will focus on rural medicine

SIU physicians

From left, Madison Nelson, Tyler Natof, Madison Funneman, Blake Laird and Owen Alford-Bichsel. | Photo courtesy of SIU School of Medicine

QUINCY — When you grow up in a town of 3,000 residents, you know every amenity won’t be readily available. But when Blake Laird saw a basic need like health care continually slip away, it caused him to reevaluate his career path.

Laird saw his neighbors, friends and family In New Baden, an Illinois town a half-hour east of the Metro-East area, pay the price as local doctors wouldn’t stay long. It forced residents to travel a considerable distance for basic care.

“A lot of the people I knew would not drive over to O’Fallon or Belleville for their care,” Laird said in a press release. “If it wasn’t immediately accessible, they were just going to skip it.”

His interest in family medicine evolved into a mission after he job-shadowed a few physicians as an undergraduate. The direct, in-person aspect of the work appealed to him, and he was a small-town guy at heart.

Then the Lincoln Scholars Program (LSP) at SIU School of Medicine launched, and Laird found the perfect match. Initiated in 2019 to create a pipeline to train physicians focusing on rural medical care, the program graduated its inaugural class of Laird, Owen Alford-Bichsel, Madison Funneman, Tyler Natof and Madison Nelson on May 18.

The five students – whose hometowns’ cumulative population is about 60,000 – received their doctorate degrees at the 50th annual commencement ceremony in Springfield, walking the stage with the other 74 members of the Class of 2024 to help create the largest number of physicians to receive degrees in the school’s history.

A new, personal level of rural care

Training for the scholars deviates from the medical school’s standard track in critical ways. The program’s timeline is June to June, and the students remain in downstate Illinois all four years, rather than relocating to Springfield for years two through four.

Learners are strategically chosen for their academic potential and their experience in, and dedication to, rural Illinois. The unique track gave the cohort of students the knowledge, skills and perspective to provide care in rural areas.

“We wanted to get the students closer to where the action is: with the patients to better understand their needs,” said dean and provost Dr. Jerry Kruse. “Research has shown a link between a physician’s connection to rural areas and their subsequent practice of rural medicine. The immersion in rural care is structured to deliver a much greater, well-rounded education with this program.”

The curriculum has an emphasis on continuous clinical experience beginning in the first weeks of the program. The LSP students train alongside SIU Medicine’s physician assistant learners during the first year. This team interaction is not done anywhere else in the United States.

Students can also specialize. During their second year, they have six-week clerkship rotations in neurology, psychiatry, pediatrics, emergency medicine, internal medicine, surgery and obstetrics-gynecology. For example, Dr. Madison Nelson will be studying neurology at Indiana University during her residency.

The start of the next generation

Building momentum since the first year, the class of ’24 found its footing, out of both necessity (dealing with pandemic protocols) and innovation (a hallmark of SIU School of Medicine).

“A lot of our growth happened after we realized something we needed to add,” Alford said. “The class below us had a lot of things we did not, and the class below them got even more. We kept building as we went, but it’s not like we were at a disadvantage. We all passed our boards and scored above the national average as a cohort. Someone has to build the foundation.”

The program is bustling under the current leadership of Dr. Jennifer Rose and Dr. Christy Hamilton. The current classes have eight students each, and a new cohort is lined up to begin classes this June.

The program was the brainchild of Dr. James Daniels, former SIU professor of family and community medicine and architect of the program, and Cheri Kelly, an associate professor with the School of Medicine Physician Assistant Program.

Kelly knows firsthand what it is like to be a student pioneer.

“I was in the first class of physician assistants that SIU trained,” she said. “It is important for students to be flexible as there are always changes. It is truly special to be a ‘first’ and be part of something big and new.”

Alford said that modest class size and one-on-one learning style presented distinct advantages for those interested in becoming “country docs.”

“You’re getting extra clinical experience with no hierarchy of residency getting in the way. You have so many more opportunities,” Alford said. “If you believe in yourself, if you take that confidence that you’re getting from seeing all these additional patients early and use it, it really does enhance your medical education.”

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