Rural and Urban Scholars Pathways Program grows sevenfold in past decade
This year the Rural and Urban Scholars Pathway Program (RUSP) at the Ohio University Heritage College of Osteopathic Medicine is celebrating its 10-year anniversary and a sevenfold increase in the number of students participating in the program. The celebration kicked off Sept. 13 on each of the college’s campuses with an event that highlighted accomplishments and brought together current and former coaches, faculty, staff and students who helped build the program.
At the event, Heritage College Executive Dean Ken Johnson, D.O., told attendees that “improving the health and well-being of underserved populations has always been integral to our mission at the Heritage College. RUSP has essentially given wings to our mission by encouraging students toward underserved practice and immersing them in underserved communities during their training.”
RUSP began in 2013 with financial support from the Osteopathic Heritage Foundations and a goal of increasing the number of primary care physicians in Ohio’s rural and urban underserved communities. The number of students participating each year has grown substantially from 20 students in 2013 to 140 in 2023. To date, 190 students have graduated from the program and 68 percent of them are practicing in the state. In the Heritage College’s most recent graduating class, 63 percent of RUSP students matched into Ohio residencies.
Former RUSP student Stephanie Deuley, D.O., graduated in 2018 and is now a family physician overseeing medical exams for refugee and newcomer health services at Neighborhood Family Practice in the Cleveland area. In her pre-recorded comments for the anniversary event, she said RUSP gave her the tools and confidence she needed to pursue medicine in an underserved community.
“RUSP was a pretty strong influence in me feeling confident in and sound in my decision to choose a federally qualified health center,” said Deuley. “Seeing physicians practice the kind of medicine I wanted to practice was so important and to see how they balanced their lives as well as how they really push to work with their patients and meet them where they were…I have found nothing but joy in the job that I have.”
Deuley attributes much of her success to RUSP activities like mentoring and Clinical Jazz, a core component of the program. Clinical Jazz was designed to create a unique opportunity for students to develop relationships and foster peer mentorship. During Clinical Jazz sessions, a mix of students across all years of medical school meet monthly in longitudinal groups with two facilitators - one physician and one non-physician - who are volunteers from the Heritage College, Ohio University and community. The groups reflect on clinical experiences and issues.
“It was a step away from the studying and a good time to meet with peers both at my level but above and below my level to discuss difficult things that we were maybe seeing and then reflect on that together,” said Deuley, who now serves as a RUSP coach, Clinical Jazz facilitator and clinical preceptor to medical students in the Continuity in Primary Care Longitudinal Integrated Clerkship elective, which is coordinated through the Office of Rural and Underserved Programs (ORUP). “Still to this day, I feel that reflection on the things that happen and the difficult situations are so, so important and ultimately have created a sense of longevity in my career and prevented a lot of burnout as well.”
Randall Longenecker, M.D., assistant dean, emeritus, who was instrumental in developing ORUP and RUSP, described Clinical Jazz as a process during which “students are encouraged to bring challenges they face, through the course of their education, to a small group of intentionally diverse members.”
Currently, there are 17 Clinical Jazz groups. The sessions are popular among students, with 95 percent in RUSP’s annual survey reporting that the program enhanced their social, professional and/or personal development.
“This statistic confirms that what we have been doing over the past 10 years to enhance the program is working,” said Sharon Casapulla, Ed.D., ORUP director of education and research. “We are deeply grateful to the 29 volunteer physicians who share their expertise and wisdom as RUSP coaches and the numerous faculty and staff who volunteer as Clinical Jazz facilitators. We could not build this learning community without them!”
In addition to Clinical Jazz sessions, RUSP students participate in rural and urban clinical and community experiences and specialized professional development on all three of the college’s campuses. The additional training opportunities better prepare students with the depth and breadth of knowledge they will need as physicians practicing in rural and urban communities that lack adequate medical care.
Scholarly activity is also a key component of the RUSP program model. While in RUSP, Christina Randolph, D.O., M.P.H. (’19), completed a mentored scholarly project with the hope of growing and sustaining an adequate number of health care providers in her hometown. Randolph, who continues to engage with RUSP by serving as a coach and Clinical Jazz facilitator, told attendees that she became familiar with different disparities while growing up in the Philadelphia area, and this knowledge inspired her to pursue a degree in medicine. Her scholarly project was designed to “engage youth around health careers and help teens wanting to go into the medical field.”
According to RUSP’s annual survey, the scholarly component of the program is valued by students. “The most rewarding aspect of RUSP was learning to combine the science we were taught in medical school with humanistic characteristics such as empathy and compassion to provide better care for patients, especially the underserved,” one student shared in the anonymous survey.
That sentiment is echoed by Deuley who told attendees at the anniversary event, “I hope I can deliver the best care I can to my patients and be partnered with them on their path to wellness…You can really effect change in a lot of people’s lives.”
At the event, Longenecker pointed out that RUSP’s success took a team effort, a lot of hard work and the dedication of faculty and staff to shape the program into what it is today. In addition to Casapulla, who has been with RUSP since its inception, and Administrative Director Dawn Mollica, each campus has an associate director: Katy Kropf, D.O. ('02), on the Athens campus, Fran Blais, D.O., on the Dublin campus, and Jessica Griggs, D.O. ('98), M.P.H., M.B.A., on the Cleveland campus.
“I am extremely thrilled to see how the program will flourish in years to come,” Longenecker said.
Going forward, the RUSP team intends to continue building and growing its community of students, residents, and physicians who are deeply committed to working in and with underserved communities.
“We want to reach forward to our graduates in practice as well as reach back into pre-medical and even middle school grades to start building additional pathways to practice for individuals from rural and urban underserved communities,” said Casapulla.