Pennsylvania’s Indiana Regional Medical Center Introduces First Residency Program for Rural Family Medicine

The Indiana Gazette

Indiana Regional Medical Center (IRMC, Indiana, PA) officials introduced the hospital’s first residency program as well as six new family medicine residents during a press conference Thursday at IRMC.

IRMC’s Rural Family Medicine Residency Program officially started July 1 after six resident physicians from a pool of roughly 600 applicants matched with IRMC. The resident physicians are Esther Ezeani, of Baltimore, Md.; Narinder Sangha, of California; Mohit Chhatpar, of New York; Tanvi Bharathan, of Indiana, Pa.; Nawar Al Janabi, of Baghdad, Iraq; and Robin Rodriguez, of Corpus Christi, Texas.

The resident physicians will work with/report to an attending physician as they learn and practice family medicine over the next three years. This will benefit patients, who will get access to two physicians for the price of one, according to IRMC Residency program director Dr. Amanda Vaglia.

“Whenever you see a resident physician, you actually get two physicians, because the resident physicians, particularly at the beginning of their training, are not allowed to see patients on their own,” Vaglia said.

The program will help increase access to family medicine for local and regional residents, a service everyone in the country needs, according to IRMC Chief Medical Officer Dr. Richard Neff.

Vaglia and IRMC CEO Steve Wolfe said they hope the program will bring new physicians into the area and improve access to quality health care in local, rural communities.

“Rural communities across the nation suffer from a shortage of health care, primarily primary care health care,” Vaglia said. “There have been studies done that indicate that the more rural education that (resident physicians) have throughout their medical training, the more likely they are to practice in a rural area.”

Wolfe said hospitals across the country are currently struggling to recruit family medicine physicians. A residency program will not only increase the number of physicians coming into the area, but it will also increase the number of physicians who stay, according to Wolfe.

The new residency program has a specific focus on rural medicine, which impacted how resident physicians were selected.

Residents were chosen based on how they ranked on a list of qualities and attributes, including their commitment to living and working rurally, commitment to family medicine, maturity, resilience and service, according to Vaglia.

Vaglia said that because Indiana is “100 percent rural,” medicine is practiced differently, and physicians must be in-tune with the specific needs of rural health care.

“Here, out in rural areas, you have to be a little more versatile; you have to be a little bit more brave; you have to be willing to learn; you have to get to know your patient,” Vaglia said. “If we have a patient in our population who comes down with an unusual disease, we can’t just refer them up the street because specialists are far away. So, we have to learn more about that patient; we have to learn more about their disease state; we have to be comfortable communicating with them and coordinating their care.”

Beyond better access to quality health care, the residency program could help boost the local economy, too, according to Wolfe, by bringing new physicians into the area to live and work. Wolfe’s sentiments were echoed by state Rep. Jim Struzzi, R-Indiana, and state Sen. Joe Pittman, R-Indiana, who also spoke at the press conference.

“For us, this is about our economy, this is about the future of our community and it’s also about quality health care in rural communities,” Pittman said.

Over the past two years, Pittman and Struzzi have worked to help fund IRMC’s residency initiative, and they said they couldn’t be happier with the results.

“When this initiative came forward, Jim and I came together, and … we were able to allocate $1 million specifically to the hospital for this initiative,” Pittman said. “I’m pleased to say today … we’ve been able to replicate that commitment. So, we’ve been able to bring $2 million to this initiative. I think our desire is to allow that to continue in the years ahead; certainly there are no guarantees.”

“We’re very pleased that we were able to get this included in this year’s budget, and we’ll continue to work for additional funding moving forward to make sure that not only is IRMC strong … but Indiana County is strong,” Struzzi said. “(IRMC is) bringing people here and providing that quality health care that people need. We all know that that’s lacking in rural areas right now.”

IRMC is considering developing another residency program in a specialty outside of family medicine; though, nothing has been finalized yet, according to Wolfe.