The West Virginia School of Osteopathic Medicine (WVSOM) brought alumni of disparate backgrounds together for its 11th annual Rural Practice Day, which took place Feb. 11 on the school’s Lewisburg campus. Rural Practice Day, hosted by WVSOM’s Rural Health Initiative (RHI), is intended to educate WVSOM students about what it’s like to practice in rural communities and to encourage students to work in rural areas after completing medical school.
A total of 146 individuals, including 110 WVSOM students, attended this year’s event, which was presented in a hybrid virtual and in-person format. The theme was “Emotional Health in Diverse Demographics,” and in service of that theme, topics included providing care for the military and veteran community, for transgender individuals, and for patients with opioid addiction and other forms of substance use disorder.
In her introductory remarks, Linda Boyd, D.O., WVSOM’s vice president for academic affairs and dean, pointed out that the school and the RHI program are working to alleviate some of the health disparities that persist in the state.
“In West Virginia we currently have 62 medically underserved areas and more than 100 health professional shortage areas. These are areas that don’t have adequate primary care physicians, have high infant mortality rates, high poverty and high rates of elderly people,” Boyd said. “One of the most important factors in improving health care in medically underserved areas is putting a primary care doctor in that area. It improves health outcomes tremendously, and that’s what our mission is at WVSOM.”
The keynote speaker was Pat Browning, D.O., a WVSOM Class of 2000 alumna and former primary care physician who lost two daughters to substance use disorder. She spoke about how social stigma surrounding the disorder can lead physicians to lose their clinical judgment, resulting in a lower quality of care.
“Nobody starts out wanting substance use disorder. It can start because a person is self-medicating for a mental illness or anxiety, because they want to be like their peers, or because there are problems at home and they want to numb themselves,” said Browning, addressing the audience from a lectern adorned with a photo of each of her daughters. “There are a lot of high-functioning people with substance use disorder, and we’re all vulnerable to it.”
Rob Snuffer, D.O., of WVSOM’s Class of 2001,is an emergency department director, hospitalist and lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army Reserve who has served seven deployments. He recounted anecdotes about patients he has cared for throughout his career, including the chilling story of one veteran who had an extreme reaction to learning that his wife had been unfaithful.
“Patients with a military background or with post-traumatic stress disorder have a different outlook on life,” Snuffer told students. “You don’t have to have been in combat to take care of veterans. What you have to do, and it’s one of the hardest things, is to not try to understand what they’ve been through, but accept what they’re telling you as the way it is.”
Jessica McColley, D.O., of WVSOM’s Class of 2009, is chief medical officer of Cabin Creek Health Systems in Kanawha County, W.Va. She spoke about how physicians can improve the emotional health and wellness of individuals who identify as transgender. McColley said America’s culture often places a “veil” over important aspects of people’s lives.
“As doctors, I want us to be able to take off the veil so that we can treat humans like humans,” McColley said. “The first thing you can do to help any member of a community where they feel like they’ve been discarded is to say, ‘I see you. I hear you. How can I help you?’ You can build rapport just by validating that your patient is a person with feelings.”
Other Rural Practice Day participants included Rhonda Hamm, D.O., of WVSOM’s Class of 1993,whodiscussedhow primary care physicians and specialists can serve patients’ mental health concerns, and Deborah Schmidt, D.O., a Class of 1988 alumna who chairs WVSOM’s Department of Osteopathic Principles and Practice. Schmidt demonstrated the National Acupuncture Detoxification Association (NADA) protocol, in which needles are placed into the exterior of the ear to decrease anxiety, ease symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder and, in patients fighting addiction, reduce cravings.