Rural America is in trouble with its health. Fortunately, Traci Marquis-Eydman ’92, M.D., FAAFP is there to help.
“Twenty percent of the U.S. population lives in rural communities, but only 11 percent of physicians practice in them, mainly primary care,” she said. She knows that increasing their numbers requires more med students and resident physicians to train in the rural areas. When they do, they tend to practice there. Marquis-Eydman’s efforts to make this happen led to Northern Maine Medical Center (NMMC) in Fort Kent being named as one of the nation’s Top 20 Rural Community Hospitals for three years in a row (2017-20).
Marquis-Eydman, assistant dean of faculty engagement at the Frank H. Netter MD School of Medicine (Netter) at Quinnipiac University (QU), in North Haven, Conn., said, “There aren’t enough rural physicians to keep clinic and hospital doors open. Since 2010, about 114 rural hospitals across the country have closed, and during COVID it only got worse.” Because of health care shortages, poverty, inadequate transportation, and other challenges, rural areas are seeing poorer health and higher death rates than national averages.
So, in 2017 Marquis-Eydman initiated an exciting collaboration between QU and NMMC. At the latter, she brought in fourth-year electives in primary care and emergency medicine for competitively selected medical students, and she launched a Longitudinal Integrated Clerkship (LIC)—all of it rural. More than 40 medical students have rotated at NMMC over the past four years. Then in 2019, Marquis-Eydman helped QU win a $750,000 Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) grant as seed money to plan for the Quinnipiac University Rural Family Medicine Residence Program, set for 2024.
Born and raised in Fort Kent, population of around 4,000, Marquis-Eydman “grew up with a sense of community. At the core of that was family and supporting others,” she said. “There was one general practitioner, and he took care of everyone in my family across the generations, addressing medical issues from abdominal pain to orthopedics. Almost all health care was paid in cash then, but because money was sometimes tight for our family, my mother once made a pot of chicken stew for the doctor, instead.”
This kind of relationship inspired Marquis-Eydman, at age 12, to be a family physician herself one day. “I was drawn to the suffering, always saving hurt birds and cats and carrying spiders outside. I wanted them to feel better,” she said. She helped her father, a high school biology and anatomy teacher, set up his classroom’s dissection lab, and that taught her about anatomy and physiology and fed her love of science.
Marquis-Eydman said, “I never envisioned getting into a place like Colby, a small-town kid picking potatoes to earn money. It not only accepted me, but of all the schools I applied to, it gave me the most financial aid. Colby opened up doors for me I don’t think I ever would’ve had access to.”
Colby’s Jan Plan, especially, stands out for her, when she shadowed Fort Kent physicians. One of those times, she delivered her first baby. “And the Biology Department at Colby was stellar,” said Marquis-Eydman, who earned her BA in that discipline. “I had a great mentor, Professor Paul Greenwood, since retired. He was constantly pushing me to get out of my comfort zone, get curious, and do field research. That was a big part of what moved me along in my education and career.”
After medical school at Dartmouth, Marquis-Eydman worked for 13 years as a primary care and public health physician in larger towns in Connecticut. Now at Netter, since 2016, with its focus on primary care, she is taking her years-long commitment to rural health-care equity back to her hometown, federally designated as a medically underserved area/population.
Netter’s fourth-year electives at the 49-bed NMMC at first were only for fourth-year students, for one month. By 2019, two years later, Marquis-Eydman added four third-year students, annually, for nine months at a time. They rotate weekly through primary care/family medicine, internal medicine, psychiatry, surgery, emergency medicine, OB-GYN, and pediatrics. The last two specialties are also at Northern Light AR Gould Hospital in Presque Isle, Maine.
LIC third-year medical student Emilee Sirois, who grew up in rural Caribou, Maine, said, “I could be stitching up a cut or observing a surgeon, analyzing blood work or doing an ultrasound. We’re part of the health care team. I most enjoy how we get one-on-one, direct feedback from the doctors, so we know where to improve to be the best doctors, ourselves. The program has confirmed my decision to practice rural medicine.”
Marquis-Eydman said, “For me, it’s always about, ‘What else can we do?’”
So, when she learned about the HRSA grant, she got on it. In 2019 Netter was one of 28 medical organizations in 21 states to receive the six-figure award. The family-medicine residency program that it’s helping to fund will place residents at NMMC and at Charlotte Hungerford Hospital, also rural, in Litchfield County, Conn.
“Traci has that can-do spirit. A positive attitude flows out of her. ‘We’ll find a way,’ she says,” said NMMC’s President and CEO, Peter Sirois (no relation). “Because of her, we have an outstanding clerkship program that has energized our medical staff, as they love to teach. That and the residency program encourage us that we are doing things right for our patients. As we all know, when you teach others, you sharpen your own skills and advocate for everyone to follow best practices.”
Marquis-Eydman, who aims to serve as the residency program’s director, said, “Without any hesitation of support from Netter and NMMC’s willingness to welcome all these resident physicians, we couldn’t do what’s necessary to help address the rural health-care inequities and take care of vulnerable patient populations. NMMC and Netter’s partnership is building the necessary foundation to boost recruitment and retention of medical students and resident physicians. We hope those who participate in the LIC program and graduate from the rural residency will practice medicine where they’ve been trained—in the rural areas.”
Whether that’s in Maine or elsewhere in the U.S., they’ll promise to improve the quality of health care in the places that desperately need it the most.
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