December 23, 2002 | By: Aimee D. Heald

University of Kentucky medical students must complete a rigorous schedule of coursework and hands-on experiences before they become doctors. In Jackson County, third-year pediatric students are getting some face-to-face experiences with patients they may serve one day thanks to a partnership with UK's Cooperative Extension Service.

Extension's Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program already fosters relationships with rural families in Jackson County through the efforts of EFNEP assistant Cathy Howell. Howell works with Julie Richerson, a pediatrician for the county's White House Clinic, to coordinate a program that allows medical students to visit families out in the county with Howell during a four-week rotation.

"I think it is important for young physicians to know that they are a part of the families' lives; it is more than that encounter in the office," Richerson said. "I think it is important to know where they live, what their family situation is like, what resources they might have in the home or what resources they might lack in the home."

Richerson said her relationship with Howell really allows students to see the bigger picture of patient care. She believes it is an eye-opening experience that helps future doctors better understand not only what patients are coming in for, but also what the doctor needs to do to help really improve health and quality of life.

For Howell, the ability to take students to her families' homes gives her a chance to connect more with them on different levels.

"Taking the students out on these home visits makes the doctors real to my clients," she said. "It just makes them more at ease and more comfortable bringing their kids into the clinic. For them to know that there are still doctors who will come to their homes helps them to know they really care."

First-year medical student Jeremy Hayes is from the Jackson County area and recently completed his four-week rotation with Richerson at the White House Clinic. Through his visits with Howell he saw parts of the county he admits he never knew existed.

"She had me lost and I didn't know where I was," he laughed. "I got to see places that I didn't even know were in the county. From that, I think I can gain a greater appreciation of where people are coming from and what I can do to make a difference in their lives. To see the home environment of these folks basically helps clue you in to what to ask patients when they come in clinic."

Richerson said it doesn't matter what county a doctor chooses to work -- there are similarities everywhere.

"If you are in Jackson County doing home visits even if you go to Graves County and see patients there, they still have a greater depth of understanding of what someone else's life is like," she said. "We are all very isolated in our own family and friends and sometimes we don't realize some of the resources other people may have."

Many counties in Kentucky have rural and urban community health centers like White House Clinic. Richerson thinks programs and cooperative efforts such as those in Jackson could help other communities improve the quality of health care. Getting off the main roads and into the smaller neighborhoods is the only way to do it, she said.

"I like doing the home visits," Howell said. "A lot of people say I'm the only person they see for the whole month and I am the only person they get to talk to. So being able to take someone like Jeremy with me out into the field to talk to them is really a good thing."

The medical student program in Jackson County is just one part of a recent UK initiative called Health Education through Extension Leadership. The HEEL program is a combined effort of the UK College of Medicine and its Kentucky School of Public Health, and the UK College of Agriculture and its Cooperative Extension Service. The program enhances the ability of county Extension agents to deliver health education statewide.


Cathy Howell  606-287-7693