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Medical program brings more doctors to rural communities

by JOSA SNOW
Staff Reporter | August 7, 2023 1:08 AM

Thinh Kieu is service minded in nearly everything he does: medical school, enlisting in the Air Force or bringing his parents from Vietnam to the U.S.

So being accepted and placed in a clinical training program at Lakeland Immediate Care in Rathdrum, which started July 31, was a new opportunity for him to give back.

“I feel like maybe I romanticize this whole thing too much, but I really like people. That's why I got into this whole thing." Kieu said. "You get to know the community, which I like. I like to get to know people and seeing patients.”

Kieu met a female patient Tuesday who was suffering complications from her pregnancy that reminded him why he plans to work in underserved communities, like Rathdrum.

“She was from a very rural community where they had no resources, and she just didn’t know where to go,” Kieu said.

And he was able to help.

“In the large medical system, even Kootenai, you see a lot of specialists, but in the rural community you don’t have that,” Kieu said. “I’d like to do more for the community — which is what rural doctors do. Because a lot of them have to do a lot more than some of the city doctors because they’re the only doctor in town.”

Kieu moved from Vietnam when he was 15. Now he lives in Rathdrum and is finishing medical school, dual enrolled with the University of Idaho and the University of Washington to become a medical provider in underserved rural communities.

He found his passion working in the challenging environment of a rural clinic when he enrolled in a Rural Underserved Opportunities Program through the University of Idaho and the University of Washington.

The program operates under the umbrella of the multi-state partnership Washington, Wyoming, Alaska, Montana and Idaho Medical Education. The partnership seeks to train physicians in the Pacific Northwest through the University of Washington School of Medicine in collaboration with the University of Idaho.

“The goal is training more Idaho physicians,” said Liz Bryant, the director of the North Idaho Area Health Education Center within the University of Idaho’s WWAMI education program. She coordinates statewide placements in the rural underserved program, like Kieu, with local physicians.

“We are trying the homegrown approach of training Idaho medical students,” Bryant said. “Training Idahoans to help Idahoans.”

Data from the Idaho Physician Workforce Profile ranked Idaho 50th in active physicians per capita.

The Rural Underserved Opportunities Program provides medical students, like Kieu, with earlier opportunities for clinical training with primary care physicians in underserved areas. It also provides rural primary care physicians with opportunities to teach. The result is expanding health care for providers and residents in places like North Idaho.

“First and second-year medical students get a really immersive experience,” Bryant said. “It allows them to take what they’ve been studying in the classroom and see it in action in a clinical program. They get to get out into these communities and work so closely with the physicians.”

Kieu is a second-year medical student with a bachelor’s degree in biochemistry and a minor in chemistry and has enough experience to work closely with patients in urgent care.

He also serves in the Air Force and has committed to four years of active duty in the military when he finishes school.

“I’m proud to serve those who serve,” he said.

He looks forward to serving his military community and his local community at the end of his commitment.

He also looks forward to gaining a lot from his military training, like learning to be adaptable. When he’s on active duty, he’ll have to be nimble and pivot quickly without knowing what to expect. He could be moved anywhere, at any time and his life could change with short notice.

His sons, Asa, 4, and infant Phineas, and his wife, Cassidy, will also have to be able to adapt as their lives change unpredictably.

Adaptability will be an imperative skill when he’s working with patients, especially when rural clinics tend to be under-resourced, he said.

With his classmates, Kieu is conducting a study asking about the greatest challenges providers face in rural communities across Idaho.

Through his work and training, he hopes to bring solutions to those challenges when he's a doctor in North Idaho.

“I know that I want to come back to North Idaho to practice,” Kieu said. “I would like to come back to a rural community. That I know.”

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Photo courtesy of Thinh Kieu

Thinh Kieu with his wife, Cassidy, and his two sons, Asa and Phineas.

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Thinh "Q" Kieu started clinical training with Lakeland Immediate Care on July 31 during his second year of medical school. The clinical training is part of a Rural Underserved Opportunities Program, where he gets first-hand experience working with patients in primary care in areas with limited medical resources.