Context: Changes in health care and new theories of learning have prompted significant changes in medical education. Some US medical schools employ immersion learning in rural communities to increase the number of physicians who choose to practice in these areas. Founded in 1971, the rural physician associate program (RPAP) is a longitudinal immersion learning experience for students during their third year of medical school. Students are assigned to a primary care preceptor(s) in a rural community ranging in population from 1,000 to 30,000 for 36 weeks.
Purpose: To describe students' perceived value of this immersion learning experience.
Methods: Data from 3 classes (2004, 2005, 2006) of students (n = 95) were analyzed, including final essays that reflect on their experiences and logs of their patient encounters and procedures. Themes from students' essays related to the hands-on learning experience are presented. Frequencies of ambulatory encounters and procedures were calculated and compared with those of metropolitan area colleagues where possible.
Findings: The continuity experience allows for one-to-one mentoring and long-term relationships. Students see physicians, clinic/hospital staff, and patients as their teachers. The environment is nurturing, but nudges them outside their comfort zone. Students gain increasing competence with their skills and do best if they are independent and seek out learning opportunities. They report more hands-on experience, more confidence and autonomy than their peers in the metropolitan area.
Conclusions: The RPAP experience provides a nurturing, longitudinal, immersion learning experience that facilitates the gradual but steady development of clinical skills alongside a personal and professional mentor.