I’d love to settle down in Idaho. The Legislature advocating for more residencies, fellowships could help.

As rural Idaho continues to struggle with mental health services, those who want to stay face some hardships, writes guest columnist Mike Reynolds

University of Idaho WWAMI building in Moscow
Medical students and faculty relax together in the University of Idaho's WWAMI building at UI's Moscow campus. (Courtesy of the University of Idaho)

According to Psychiatry News, there are five psychiatrists per 100,000 people in Idaho. The nearest adult psychiatrist is an hour’s drive away, while the nearest child psychiatrist is about three hours away.

This is a problem, and rural communities in Idaho and other Western states deserve high quality health care, including mental health care.

Idaho WWAMI is a medical school partnership between University of Idaho and the No. 1 ranked primary care medical school in the nation, the University of Washington School of Medicine.

This 50-year partnership, made possible by the Idaho Legislature, allows local kids like me to stay in-state for my training, pay in-state tuition but receive nationally-recognized medical education. The decentralized nature of Idaho WWAMI means I could do my first two years in Moscow and then serve in clinical rotations with practicing physicians at clinical sites all around the state, including rural communities in the Magic Valley, where I am now.

Early in my medical school training, I heard a professor say that there are more child and adolescent psychiatrists on the faculty at Harvard Medical School than in the entire state of Idaho. Sadly, that’s true.

I’m the first person in my family to become a physician, and it wasn’t until growing up in Nampa and then attending college in La Grande, Oregon, that I realized just how critical doctors are for rural communities.

I followed my now-wife to Eastern Oregon University for college, and while there, I studied anthropology and sociology. I became immersed in a nonprofit that worked to improve the mental health of rural youth.

By the time I graduated, I felt called to become what the kids I worked with and their families needed most: a rural psychiatrist. To apply to medical school, I first worked at an elementary school with an in-patient component for kids who struggled with mental illness or behavioral issues. Afterward, I attended Boise State University to get my science prerequisites, and then, I was lucky to get into my dream medical school: Idaho WWAMI.

Idaho WWAMI is committed to developing more physicians who understand and appreciate rural medicine and are committed to practicing close to home.

Now that I’m in my third year, I’m working at the St. Luke’s clinic in Jerome under a WWAMI alumna, Dr. Catherine Doyle, as part of the WRITE program, which helps immerse medical students like me in family medicine in rural settings throughout Idaho.

Those in Idaho’s medical community are well aware of WWAMI’s impact on training physician leaders throughout the state. At my clinical rotation site in Jerome, three out of the six residents graduated from WWAMI, as well as some of the attending physicians who mentor us.

I’m not a licensed physician yet, but I’m grateful for the opportunity to learn to practice alongside such talent. I’m so inspired by people like Dr. James Irwin, who has been practicing for 50 years in the Magic Valley. While many of our patients drive an hour or two for primary care, Dr. Irwin has patients who have moved away to neighboring states who drive 6-12 hours to see him.

Idaho WWAMI is known for creating beloved small town docs: the one you run into at the grocery store, who everyone knows, and who is a pillar in their community, always giving back and embodying servant leadership. I think Idaho and America need more physicians like that.

As I work toward fulfilling my dream I’m getting hands-on experience learning from practicing physician volunteers who act as faculty and mentors for Idaho medical students.

I generally get into the clinic early, before the doctors arrive, look over our patient list and their charts, and begin to put together a game plan. I see patients with everything from low back pain to someone whose child has been vomiting for a week to wellness checkups. We do a lot of work managing psychiatric medication since that often falls to primary care physicians.

Once I finish my training, my goal is to practice in the Treasure Valley or the Magic Valley, and spend time in outlying areas where access to psychiatrists is a struggle.

Since Idaho WWAMI is made possible by public funding from the state Legislature, it’s a major goal to retain alumni as physicians practicing in the state. I’d love to be able to return to Idaho, but unfortunately, the lack of post graduate medical school training makes that prospect tough.

Even if I’m lucky enough to match in psychiatry in Idaho, I’d have to do a fellowship to practice child and adolescent psychiatry out of state because there simply isn’t one here. I hope lawmakers will advocate for more residencies and fellowships in Idaho, because physicians tend to settle down and practice where they complete that training which is necessary to become licensed.

And I’d love to settle down in this incredible state.