Portland, Ore.Lisa Dodson, M.D., didn't intend to have a career in rural health. However, now she can see how the turns her life have taken, has led her to be an integral part of Oregon's rural health plan. She recently WAS appointed to be the Deputy Director of Oregon Health & Science University Area Heath Education Centers. The AHEC program is a partnership between OHSU and Oregon communities to improve the education, training and distribution of health care professionals in the state.
"I didn't intend to practice in a rural area. But through an odd series of events, I was led to rural medicine," Dodson said. She sat amid packing boxes in her new office. Pictures of her family were already on the bookshelves. A large white board with upcoming events and deadlines covered one wall.
The first part of Dodson's life was spent in mostly urban areas. She grew up in Portland, then Bozeman, Montana, which she described as not very rural. Her grandfather, however, owned a ranch near Mitchell in Eastern Oregon, where she visited frequently, getting to know rural life and rural people. She graduated from Lewis & Clark College in Portland, not exactly rural, then attended medical school at Stony Brook, State University of New York, not even remotely rural. She returned to OHSU for her residency in family medicine.
While at OHSU in the late 1980s she was part of the planning process to set up rural AHEC centers. She was offered a faculty position in the School of Medicine after her residency, but declined because she didn't want to give up her clinical experience. Instead, she was offered a chance to go to John Day with another physician in the newly formed Northeast AHEC, as a family physician. OHSU School of Medicine residents and students spend weeks and sometimes months here, as well as at all the AHEC centers as part of their training. Dodson liked her work in John Day so much she stayed seven years.
"I loved it. I like the connectedness you get in small town life. You get to know the people. You see them in the stores. You see them in church. You see them in at the Friday night high school football game. You become an integral part of people's lives, " she said.
She also got the opportunity to gain experience clinically. A physician in a rural area treats a wide variety of medical conditions and usually a large patient population from children to adults. There are 8,000 people in Grant County, where John Day is located, and from two to four physicians. Dodson said that rural physicians do the job of a medical examiner, trauma specialist, field site physician at high school sports games and obstetrician.
Now, back in Portland at her new job, she realizes the rural route she has taken in her life and her career was just what she has wanted.
"From visiting my Grandfather's ranch, I got to know rural people. And now I've lived there. I understand better what their needs are," Dodson said.
John Saultz, the director of AHEC agrees that Dodson has the right combination for her new position. "Dr. Dodson has a unique combination of experiences that make her an ideal leader for the AHEC program. She has worked as a rural physician in John Day and has received awards as a preceptor to residents and students from OHSU. She has also been a leader in the physician community in central Oregon and has served as a member of the state board of medical examiners. Lisa understands the demands of rural practice. She knows how important the link to OHSU can be for community-based health professionals in our state. For the past 12 years, AHEC has been a very important program for Oregon. Dr. Dodson will help us to insure that it stays that way," he said.
Dodson said she'd be focusing on education through the four AHECs. Many of their programs work with K-12 students, especially the underserved, rural children, to get them interested in pursuing health careers. Dodson wants to continue their mission of interesting school-age children in health careers and in practicing in rural communities through such programs as MedStars, Multicultural Youth for Health and Great Inventors. "You have to start planting seeds early in kids," she said.
The four AHECs are: the Cascades East serves Crook, Deschutes, Harney, Jefferson, Lake, Klamath, southern Malheur counties and the Warm Springs community in Wasco; Oregon Pacific serves Benton, Clatsop, Columbia, Lincoln, Linn, Polk, Tillamook and Yamhill counties; Northeast Oregon serves Baker, Gilliam, northern Malheur, Morrow, Sherman, Union, Umatilla, Wallowa and Wheeler counties; and AHEC of Southeast Oregon, which serves Lane, Douglas, Coos, Curry, Josephine and Jackson counties.
"AHEC's mission is to provide a pathway from an academic health center to rural communities. I want to improve and increase those connections between OHSU and the rest of Oregon. I want to take the benefits of an academic health center and get them out into the rural communities of Oregon. Many of these connections are already there, but I want to improve and increase them," she said.