HANNIBAL, Mo. -- Marion County, like the rest of Northeast Missouri, is designated by the state as a "health professional shortage area."
In other words, there's a lack of health care professionals moving to the area to set up practice.
The University of Missouri School of Medicine is addressing that shortage by introducing students to life in rural areas before they graduate, and this past week, 18 students in the university's Rural Immersion program visited Hannibal to see what living and working in the community would be like.
"It's important for people to understand that a rural town isn't ‘hokey,' " said Susan Wathen, vice president of human resources at Hannibal Regional Healthcare System. "These are great places to practice that have a lot to offer."
The students -- who are in the fields of nursing, medicine, pharmacy, dietetics and public health, among others -- arrived Monday, stayed at Hannibal-LaGrange University dorms during the week before finishing the program Thursday. They divided into small groups, and each day interviewed community leaders in business, government, education, health care and natural resources.
"We've been planning this week for months," Wathen said. "They've met business owners, have done ride-alongs with the Police Department, did a scavenger hunt of Hannibal, and so much more. It's impressive to see the community really get behind this. And the students came prepared with questions about the health care here, what are the gaps and how the community plans to fix them."
Raeann Kilgore and Erica Rideout both grew up in rural communities, and they agree that they want to return to a rural setting after graduation.
"It's important to keep health care accessible to people, and providing closer care to patients is key," said Kilgore, a second-year pharmacy student from Green City. "This week has been awesome, and it has further solidified for me that decision to return to a community similar to that of where I grew up."
Rideout, a senior nursing student from Chatham, Ill., said, "Attracting people to rural health care facilities is important because those places need staffing, and if they close, then that's a detriment to the health of the community."
Kilgore's favorite part of the week was visiting Maxwell Pharmacy and discussing with staff the role of the independent pharmacy in the community. Rideout said her favorite part was meeting with Bobby Boland of Tom Boland Ford, Mississippi Marketplace owner Linda Studer and other business leaders.
"They all left Hannibal or their rural hometown for college and said why they came back, so that was interesting to hear," she said.
MU says on its website that the nonclinical Rural Immersion experience highlights the "social and communal aspects" of rural life. The program is in its second year, and students must apply to get into the program.
Did the visit to Hannibal persuade anyone to come back after graduation? Kilgore and Rideout said it's a possibility.