DeKALB – Nicole Dispensa is heading toward a job in health care, but she believes her hometown of Stillman Valley lacks the resources to learn more about that career path.
Dispensa, 17, wants to pursue a career in clinical lab sciences. In a town with a population of about 1,100 people, it’s not easy to come by people in that profession.
“It’s hard to find people to shadow, at least for what I want to do,” she said.
Dispensa is among 42 high school students from rural areas in 19 northern Illinois counties participating this week in the eighth Rural Health Careers Camp. The camp’s goal is to address the need for more health care providers in rural areas, said Vicki Weidenbacher-Hoper, coordinator for the National Center for Rural Health Professions in Rockford.
The camp includes CPR training, games such as “Disease Detective,” hands-on labs and talks with health care professionals.
Students also will compete in a race that includes a bedpan relay and laboratory matching game.
The three-day camp started Wednesday at Northern Illinois University. The camp is a partnership among NIU’s School of Nursing and Health Studies, National Center for Rural Health Professions and the Northwestern Illinois Area Health Education Center.
Weidenbacher-Hoper said students from rural Illinois are more likely to return to areas near their hometowns to practice medicine.
“In rural Illinois, there’s a shortage of health professionals across the board,” she said. “We use the ‘grow your own’ model. We want to invest in what we have in rural Illinois.”
Matt Hunsaker, director of the rural medicine education program at the University of Illinois in Rockford, said students in rural areas typically have a harder time finding information about health care fields than students in urban areas.
He said 75 percent of people who enroll in medical school come from the top fifth of combined parental incomes.
“That’s typically not a rural background,” he said.
Another barrier between rural students and careers in health care is less access to advanced placement classes. Some schools spend as much as $90 per hour, per pupil on those classes, Hunsaker said. Schools in rural areas oftentimes spend $90 per hour for an entire advanced placement class of students.
“You have one [class] going to Great America doing physics experiments on the rides, and the other is watching a video and reading a textbook,” he said.
Noah Czarney, 16, lives in Serena, a town with a population below 1,000. He’s leaning toward becoming a surgeon, and his biology teacher recommended that he attend the camp.
He said only one other person from his school attended the camp.
“... Most people in my area are interested in farming,” he said. “It’s a farming community.”
Hunsaker said the biggest difference between working in rural and urban settings is getting to know patients really well in rural areas. In urban areas, he said physicians can see 25 to 30 patients in one day and not come across a familiar face.
Recruiting young health care professionals to rural areas is especially important as baby boomers retire from the field and become patients themselves, Hunsaker said.
“Growing your own really is a solution, especially in rural Illinois,” he said.
The camp also includes a parent session to review what students have learned, what to do next and locating college opportunities and financial aid. Weidenbacher-Hoper said many students rely on college information from their parents, which is why that session is important.
“Our goal is to get them excited about health professions – get them thinking and knowing they can do this,” she said. “This is a viable option for them.”