Rachel Ammons knows what she wants to do with her life and she knows where she wants to do it. Luckily, it’s right where she’s needed.
“I have always wanted to go into medicine,” the Guthrie native and Oklahoma State University graduate said. “I have an aunt who’s a Physician Assistant and an aunt who’s a Nurse Practitioner, but we didn’t have any doctors.”
Ammon just completed her first year at the OSU Center for Health Sciences where she’s in the Rural Medical Track, a program designed to prepare primary care physicians for rural or underserved areas, and an externship with Stillwater Medical Center.
The Rural Medical Track helps students develop leadership skills and gives them opportunities for research, early clinical experience and additional hands-on training. They complete the third year of their clinical core rotation at community-based, primary care residency sites around the state and complete at least two sub-internships and three residency rotations.
Rural medical care is a critical issue in Oklahoma, where the state is facing a crisis in quality, accessible health care options in some areas, according to the Oklahoma Farm Bureau.
“With a large portion of Oklahoma’s population living within the state’s urban cores, driving hours for routine medical services seems unimaginable,” the 2019 Oklahoma Farm Bureau Policy Book says. “But for those who live in rural areas, simple medical procedures – such as x-rays, preventative screenings and immunizations – can mean traveling halfway across the state.”
The National Rural Health Association reports that rural areas have a higher percentage of people over 65, who tend to access medical care more often, and have less than half as many physicians available per 10,000 in population.
These issues make recruiting medical professionals to practice in rural areas a high priority.
For the past two weeks, Ammons has been experiencing different areas at Stillwater Medical and shadowing primary care physicians from the Stillwater Medical Physicians Clinic.
Dr. Dan Hill, one of the physicians she shadowed last week, said he also wound up in Stillwater as part of a rural physician recruitment program that helped with student loan repayment.
He knew and liked Stillwater, having done his undergraduate training at OSU, and his wife is from Ponca City, so it was a good fit.
He just wasn’t sure at the time that it would be a permanent move.
“I came on a three year contract,” Hill said. “Now 21 years, three kids and a mortgage later, I’m still here.”
Stillwater Medical is still considered a rural provider but it doesn’t feel nearly as rural to Hill as it did when he first arrived. There were almost no specialists and only two family practice physicians in town, he said.
Stillwater doesn’t feel as rural as it used to, but it still serves as a hub for a large and largely rural area.
He’s impressed with the clinical capabilities and the medical specialties that are now available in Stillwater, which attracts patients from across the state. Hill says he has patients who drive from Tulsa and Paul’s Valley to see him.
Dr. John Wedlake, a neurologist, previously told the News Press he’s had patients come from as far away as New Mexico.
Ammons said she’s impressed with the facilities and resources available at Stillwater Medical and the great strides it has made since she did her first shadowing at SMC as a college freshman.
She’s especially impressed with the new Heart & Vascular Institute, calling it “immaculate” and saying its like something you would expect to see in a larger city.
Although more medical specialties are available right in Stillwater now, as a primary care provider Hill tends to stay hands-on with his patients, saying he’ll often continue to manage their care while using the specialists as consultants.
He says he appreciates the variety he gets as a primary care physician and the challenge of caring for people in all stages of life.
“You have to have at least a basic understanding of every subspecialty,” Hill said. “Behind every door is a new, complicated problem … You're not just doing the same procedure over and over.”
Ammons also plans to go into primary care, although she may consider a fellowship in dermatology or pediatrics.
“My experience was amazing!” she wrote of her externship. “I have learned an abundance about pharmaceuticals, contraindications, diseases – and more so than anything, how to just be a generally attentive physician.”
Ammons says she’d like to eventually come back to Stillwater to build her practice. Her experiences during her externship only solidified that.
“I hope to get back as quickly as possible,” she said.