Home is where the heart is. And where the career is, as well — at least for the nearly 250 students who have completed or are completing the Kearney Health Opportunities Program (KHOP), a cooperative program between the University of Nebraska at Kearney and University of Nebraska Medical Center.
The program is aimed at high school students who are rural residents, are interested in a health care career, and who commit to come back to a rural area to practice. Students who are accepted into the program receive a full-tuition scholarship at UNK, are part of a learning cohort that prepares them for success, and once all requirements are complete, are accepted to the health care program at UNMC they applied for.
It’s part of the University of Nebraska System’s commitment to increase the number of health care professionals in rural Nebraska. Students in health science fields tend to practice within 50 to 100 miles of where they are trained — making it critical to recruit students who not only come from rural areas, but who attend college near those areas.
Peggy Abels, director of UNK Health Sciences, runs the KHOP program — along with other programs that work with KHOP to create a pathway to rural health careers. She believes UNK is critical to developing the rural workforce.
“We’re well positioned to provide opportunities to students from rural areas,” she said. “The majority of students at UNK are from rural Nebraska, they’re interested in training in Nebraska, and they’re interested in returning to the places they know and love.
“Since KHOP started in 2010, we’ve had nearly 250 students take part in the program. More than half of those have matriculated to UNMC, and the rest of them are in the pipeline here at UNK, ranging from freshmen through seniors.”
Connecting Rural Students to Success in Health Care Careers
Since its inception, KHOP has grown steadily. The program started with pre-med students; each year after that, a UNMC program was added until all the programs were covered. “Now we have 10 programs — medicine, pharmacy, dentistry, nursing, and more,” Abels said. “This helps us train professionals in a wide variety of disciplines who then come back and serve rural Nebraska.”
The journey of health care education is a lengthy, rigorous process, and UNK ensures KHOP students are prepared. Each area of study has a certain number of seats available, and once a cohort comes into the program, they are required to live in the KHOP Learning Community.
There are classes the students take together, providing a shared academic component. They also participate in mentoring groups with KHOP students who are further along in the program. The mentors and mentees meet weekly on topics like college transition, study skills, professional development and more. The students also receive significant exposure to professionals in their chosen career field and to rural hospitals that employ those professionals.
“We immerse them in rural health care, in experiences that are going to help them be successful,” Abels said. “Around 40% of UNK’s student body are first-generation, and many of them come from very small rural high schools. It’s important to give them a support system and sense of community.”
Once KHOP students complete their freshman experience, Abels ensures they continue to get exposure to rural health care — and learn more about what it’s like to be part of a smaller rural health care team. “They’re talking to providers, they’re networking, we’re going to UNMC. I want them to get engaged with what it means to be a rural health care professional,” she said.
Once KHOP students matriculate to UNMC, they continue do many of their rotations and clinicals in rural areas, which ties well with their undergraduate experience and builds on what they have learned.
Returning to Serve Communities They Know
Drs. Andy and Cade Craig are brothers from Minden. They both were awarded KHOP positions, attended UNK, went on to UNMC’s College of Medicine, and returned to Minden to practice family medicine.
KHOP provided an opportunity for students like the Craigs to train and then return to a rural setting.
“The current program is very robust,” Andy Craig said. “It guides students all the way through from their freshman year all the way to medical school.”
Sister programs like RHOP, a similar cooperative program between Nebraska’s state colleges and UNMC, create an even broader pipeline for rural students who understand the unique needs of their community and incentivizing them to return.
The brothers believe programs like KHOP are important. “The population of primary care physicians in Nebraska is getting older — the average age of primary care providers is mid- to upper 50s. At some point, we will need to replace that workforce,” Cade Craig said. “When I think of the future, programs like KHOP help us to meet that need. It’s the perfect marriage between people who are interested in practicing rural medicine and the opportunity to do so.”
The Craigs have seen positive outcomes from the KHOP program. They both formed a network of people from college and medical school who have a shared desire to return to rural Nebraska. Now, they communicate on a weekly basis and share their experiences.
But beyond the networking lies the opportunity to strengthen the communities they live in.
“It’s hard for someone who grew up in an urban setting to come to rural Nebraska to practice. KHOP provides stability to our communities,” Andy Craig said.
Continuing to Benefit Rural Nebraska
Both physicians have remained involved in the KHOP program, including participating in interviews for program finalists, shadowing, giving presentations and talking to students about rural health care.
“The involvement of current health care practitioners in the further development of the KHOP pipeline is critical to recruitment — and to the professional development of students currently in the program,” Abels said. “The Craigs’ participation makes a huge difference.”
“There are two reasons I stay involved,” said Andy Craig. “First, I want to share my experience with the program — it was very positive and I wouldn’t be where I am today without it. Second, I want to be involved with the future of medicine. At some point, people younger than us will take over, so helping more students apply to KHOP keeps me engaged with the future of rural practice.”
“These programs work,” said Cade Craig. “They’re successful in helping people get back to rural Nebraska. It would be tough to deal with rural health care if there weren’t a large number of primary care providers that are willing to practice and take care of people. In many ways, we are the first line of defense.”
Beyond what KHOP graduates do for the program is what they are doing for their communities. Along with filling urgent health care needs, these practitioners are also sustaining the vibrancy of their communities and helping to retain or bring back talent.
“As people who are in rural communities decide whether to stay or whether to go, two of the biggest determining factors are school systems and access to health care,” Abels said. “Those are critical pieces of any rural community. So when it comes to the sustainability of rural Nebraska, health care is very important.”
“We need to make sure our rural communities are viable and sustainable and that their residents want to stay. I’m proud of the role that KHOP plays in making that happen.”