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Erin Burrier, College of Medicine student

Rural Medicine Physicians: You’re Always Seen as the Doctor

If you were a first-time visitor to Erin Burrier’s hometown, a former Delaware Indian village on the Tuscarawas River an hour south of Akron, Ohio, she’d be sure to show you the new Cy Young memorial and Woody Hayes statue.

“They’re both from Newcomerstown and we’re very proud,” says the second-year Rural Medicine Pathway (RMED) College of Medicine student.

A quick, luminous presence, Burrier beams even brighter when she talks about the warmth of growing up on a beef cattle farm with lots of extended family – including both sets of grandparents – living close by. Her dad was (still is) a rural family medicine physician in Newcomerstown. For a couple of years during high school, Burrier saw the workings of his clinic by helping out as a records keeper

Even though she knows practicing rural medicine is for her, she understands why someone coming to it from a suburban upbringing might have culture shock, she said in a recent conversation.

“Everyone knows everyone. A lot of the time you are the person patients go to for all of their health care needs. Driving over an hour to see a specialist isn’t realistic for those who are working or need transportation. And also, that thought of not ever being able to take off your doctor mask: You’re always seen as the doctor,” says Burrier.

Members of a small rural community expect a physician to be a community leader, too. Erin has watched her dad step up to be a baseball coach, a basketball coach and a volunteer to do sports physicals.

International film festival reveals different geography, same issues

“I think the general public doesn’t know how underrepresented rural health care is,” says Burrier.

Eager to share her thoughts and discuss the topic, she accepted the chance to be a panelist at an event held by the Cleveland City Club immediately following the April 5 Cleveland International Film Festival showing of a film called The Providers. (Burrier is seated at far left in the photo above.)

Although the three health care providers in the film were working in a rural New Mexico, in an area geographically larger than rural Ohio, Burrier noticed commonalities. One was the heroin epidemic. (Just about everyone in her town knows someone who has died from a heroin overdose.) Another was a population of people living in poverty who don’t have the opportunity to pursue higher education.

“It just doesn’t seem like people in rural areas tend to get the opportunities that some of their suburban counterparts might,” she says.

And just as Burrier saw high turnover among health care providers at her dad’s clinic, the same was true in rural New Mexico.

Old ways are gone

Burrier appeared on the panel  with John R. Corlett, president and executive director of the Center for Community Solutions, along with Laura Green and Anna Moot-Levin, the film’s co-directors. Both of the filmmakers are, like Burrier, children of health care providers.

The filmmakers were looking for “that old-timey family doc who makes home visits,” says Burrier, and what they found was very different.

Opportunity and encouragement are key

A lot of rural students lack exposure to STEM education and mentors to guide them to college and health care fields, says Burrier, who loves teaching and is a peer advisor at NEOMED (providing support to first-year students). She also tutors physiology and anatomy.

It’s important to her get students from rural communities interested in health care fields.

As the film festival panel discussed, various solutions are being tried to attract more rural medicine practitioners. Easing the financial burden is good, but, “It’s not enough to throw money at it,” says Burrier. “Those patients deserve doctors who are really invested in their health.”