Health networks and universities receive $2.3 million in funding to expand rural education opportunities

FARMINGTON — Gov. Janet Mills on Tuesday announced $2.25 million in grants to expand healthcare education opportunities, a much-needed investment in Maine’s rural workforce, recipients said.

“Rural Maine is my home. I care deeply about the people who live there and want to make sure they have access to quality healthcare services,” Mills said in a prepared statement.

A group led by MaineHealth, the University of Maine System and St. Joseph’s College will receive a total of $1.6 million from Mills’ Maine Jobs and Recovery Plan to expand medical training opportunities for doctors, social workers and nurses in rural areas improve communities.

Of the $1.6 million, $950,000 will go to the sponsoring institutions of Maine’s four accredited medical education programs — the Maine Medical Center in Portland, the Central Maine Medical Center in Lewiston, the Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor, and the Maine Dartmouth Family Medicine Residency in Augusta – to fund the Maine Rural Graduate Medical Education Collaborative or the MERGE Collaborative.

dr Kalli Varaklis, ob/gynecologist and director of Maine Med’s residency program, said that despite the wealth of experience training physicians in each of these programs, the MERGE Collaborative is their first collaboration.

“There is good evidence that where someone pursues residency has a very strong impact on where they ultimately practice,” Varaklis said. “And so the idea is in a rural state where we’re struggling to place doctors statewide. It makes a lot of sense to increase the number of opportunities for people to train in the countryside so that they actually stay in rural communities,” Varaklis said.

The collaboration will work together to create a new curriculum and establish standards for clinical caregivers and residents that “really focus on rural competencies and especially those in Maine,” she said.

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They are also working to launch an online learning platform where physicians from across the state can access continuing education resources and courses.

A key objective of the program is the addition of four new training sites that residents can rotate to – Franklin Memorial Hospital in Farmington, Bridgton Hospital, Blue Hill Hospital and four more an addiction medicine specific program at Stephens Memorial Hospital in Norway going forward planned.

“In the past, it would have been difficult for a Maine Medical Center resident to go to Blue Hill. Not impossible, but difficult,” said Varaklis. “But now it’s getting very slim.”

Farmington’s Franklin Memorial Hospital will benefit from a $2.25 million grant announced Tuesday by Gov. Janet Mills to expand healthcare education opportunities in rural areas of the state, including Franklin County. Morning Sentinel file


The collaboration is also creating a summer internship program for eight medical students who will rotate at one of the training sites. The program is designed for students who are enrolled in a Maine-based program such as the University of New England or Maine Med-Tufts University’s Maine Track program, or who grew up in rural Maine and attend out-of-state medical school.

To also build a robust network of educators, two faculty members from each of the four campuses are selected to enroll in an 18-month, grant-funded course called the Rural Education Leadership Academy.

“Hopefully it’s some sort of human resource development for the entire rural state,” said Dr. Bethany Picker, the Medical Director of Family Medicine Residency at Central Maine Medical Center.

Picker said that because CMMC is already the hub of the Central Maine Healthcare Network and with an established community clinic at Rumford Hospital, Bridgton Hospital was a natural choice as one of the rural training schools.

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The city of Bridgton and its surrounding communities in northern Cumberland County, bordering the Sebago Lakes region and Oxford County, also have unique population and health needs. The population there is older and swells significantly in the summer, which Picker says offers some opportunities to practice acute care. Residents can also practice addiction medicine in a rural community.

Picker said CMMC has also done a lot of faculty development related to diversity, equity and inclusion of both providers and patients and will bring that work into the residency programs and trainer training.

MaineHealth, Northern Light Health, the Maine Hospital Association and other healthcare networks also received a $650,000 grant from the Federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to fund the Building-ME Network, a community project aimed at improving the process for Trainees and clinics streamline supervisors to find clinical placements with rural healthcare providers.

The goal of the program is to increase opportunities for trainees across specialties and positions to find the clinical rotations they need to complete their programs in a rural community, said Jolene Luce, director of the Western Maine Area Health Education Center and resident at Franklin Memorial Hospital.

Students need teachers and the program will also increase support for clinical supervisors or preceptors.

“So this grant really gives us the growth and development to continue to do that. So for a small, rural hospital like Franklin Memorial, it’s absolutely essential. This type of pipeline effort will really support our health workforce for tomorrow,” Luce said.

The work Luce and other partners are doing will add over 500 additional weeks of training over each of the next two years, said Kneka Smith, MaineHealth’s vice president of operations for academic affairs.

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“Right now it’s a very fragmented system in communities and across the state” to allow students and supervisors to connect. “So through this partnership, we want to create a centralized way to connect students with teachers and training.”

Luce, like Varaklis, pointed to data showing health workers tend to stay in the communities where they trained. And while there may be students who want to work in a rural community, limited resources mean hospitals like FMH aren’t able to publicize the opportunities there as well as larger hospitals or health centers.

“It’s also like another level to that. That way they can be sure they know we’re here and what we can offer,” she said. And the benefit of this collaboration means that if FMH doesn’t have a clinical supervisor for a specialty, for example, FMH could refer a student to another hospital in Maine that does.

The funding will also help expand student housing in areas like Farmington. Housing is often cited by rural healthcare providers as a significant barrier for trainees and residents wishing to work in rural areas.

The grant will be “extremely supportive of this type of effort across the board,” Luce said.

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