Stretching from Stockton to Bakersfield, the greater San Joaquin Valley is an area synonymous with rural and urban populations with a great need for health care.
In an effort to address the specific health needs of these populations, the UC system has put forth a collaborative effort to train medical students from these areas.
“Everyone’s pulling together for this special mission,” said Dr. Don Hilty, the co-director of UC Merced San Joaquin Valley PRIME (Program in Medical Education).
With support from UCSF Fresno, California state assemblymen, the Office of the UC President and in partnership with UC Davis School of Medicine, the UC Merced San Joaquin Valley PRIME is slated to begin instructing students in August 2011.
Currently, the UC system has PRIME programs in Irvine, UCSF Fresno, UCLA, UC San Diego and UC Davis, which train medical students to work in underprivileged communities throughout California.
UC Merced will become the sixth such program with a special interest in working for communities of the San Joaquin Valley region.
Six students will be chosen to train and study at the UCD School of Medicine for this program, preparing to work in some of the most medically deprived communities in California.
Hilty believes that the partnership between UC Davis and UC Merced PRIME will be a stepping stone for UC Merced to eventually open their own medical program in areas where doctors are needed the most.
“It’s a practical idea to start small and provide education specific to the students … and directed towards the needs of the Valley,” Hilty said.
According to the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research, the valley not only suffers from a shortage of doctors but also has some of the highest rates of obesity, air and water pollution and uninsured populations in California.
Infectious diseases in the valley also tend to be more specific to its climate, originating in its soil, where higher rates of fungal infections, called valley fever, can attack the lungs, Hilty said.
Rebecca Miller, coordinator for UC Davis’ rural PRIME and acting coordinator for UC Merced’s San Joaquin program, recognizes that the Valley continues to be an area with terrible health outcomes, but posits that this is not the only challenge that future doctors of the area will face.
Growing up in a rural community herself, from a family of rice farmers, Miller contends that working in a rural setting brings its own unique challenges.
“There aren’t many specialties [in health care] … and in small towns word gets around, so there is a hesitancy in people seeking medical care because of this feeling [of a lack of] privacy,” Miller said.
Additionally, the diverse populations spanning across the valley, including migrant workers and minorities in rural and inner cities, create an atmosphere where future medical doctors working in these areas will have to specialize in not only specific health issues but also the people of the area.
“It’s not only if you can get patients to a hospital or clinic because they might not have transportation, but also cultural differences [related to health care] and how to adjust services to meet these cultural differences,” Hilty said.
Students of the UC Merced San Joaquin Valley program will therefore be trained with a focus on an integration of public health and medicine with an active role to work with community leaders.
While students of the first UC Merced PRIME program will spend their first two years of training at the UC Davis School of Medicine, their focus will be slightly different compared to UC Davis’ PRIME program, Miller said.
The UC Davis PRIME program will graduate medical students to work in rural communities around California, while students in the UC Merced PRIME program will eventually work for both rural and urban communities in the San Joaquin Valley.
The UC Merced program has so far received 150 applicants and will plan to expand their openings from six to 12 spots, depending on funding.
“San Joaquin Valley residents have long suffered from inadequate health care services,” according to the UC Merced PRIME web site. “… [this program] represents a big step forward for an entire region.”
JESSY WEI can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.