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Published on August 28, 2018

Drawn to Alpena in Medical School, He’s Back to Practice Medicine

Nathan Gallagher, M.D.

Family Medicine Physician Nathan Gallagher, M.D., is happy to back in Alpena practicing medicine and doing the outdoor things he loves in a small and friendly town.

ALPENA, Mich. – A doctor with a dream of practicing in small-town Michigan has returned to his “adopted” community of Alpena to begin living out that dream.

Family Medicine Physician Nathan Gallagher, M.D., became attracted to Alpena while attending medical school at Michigan State University College of Human Medicine. He did two years of clinical rotations in Alpena and Traverse City. He then went to Peoria, Illinois for family medicine residency training with a goal to experience “big city” medicine and bring that back to Michigan.

Now, he’s back in Alpena, having recently joined the family medicine office of MidMichigan Physicians Group on Long Rapids Road.

“It was always my career plan to go to a smaller town, integrate into the community, and do the outdoor activities that I enjoy,” said Dr. Gallagher. “Both of my parents grew up on dairy farms, so I knew I wanted to be somewhere that I could own property and be outdoors.”

During medical school, the Traverse City native examined his options and chose Alpena for clinical rotations, which are the hands-on learning portions of medical school.

“What drew me to Alpena was that it was a small town, even smaller than Traverse City, so it had those things I was looking for in a rural community and took me even further out of my comfort zone.”

“The area was nice and the people were super pleasant, so I really enjoyed my time here. When it came to hiring, they were excited and eager to welcome me, which really made it stand out from other locations.”

“For example, there was a surgeon who would invite me to play volleyball on the beach during my student rotations, and one of the other general surgeons kept in touch with me during my residency program and encouraged me to consider Alpena after graduating.”

“I also found that patients here were very appreciative of their doctors, and doctors knew their patients well, so it impressed me how connected they were. That’s the kind of relationship I am looking to have with my patients.”

Specialized Programs Keep Physicians Local

Michigan State University has a long history of identifying and training physicians with an interest in serving rural communities. They started one of the first rural medicine training programs in the nation back in the 1970s, in response to severe physician shortages. The program began in Marquette in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.

“That was in the pre-internet days, so remote learning was done by phone and mail,” explained Andrea Wendling, M.D., F.A.A.F.P. She is a professor of family medicine and the director of rural medicine curriculum at Michigan State University College of Human Medicine.

“The program was extremely successful. In 2011 we did a study of the first 30 years of graduates and found that 26 percent were still practicing in the Upper Peninsula, more than half were in rural communities and three quarters were in high-need specialties including family medicine, internal medicine, pediatrics, obstetrics, general surgery and psychiatry. Based on that success, we have doubled the size of the program and expanded it to other rural areas of Michigan, including the northern Lower Peninsula, central Michigan and the Thumb.”

According to Dr. Wendling, who is a graduate of the now expanded program called the Rural Community Health Program (R-CHP), MSU identifies and starts to nurture likely prospects while they are still in high school. The program supports them with information and resources that make them more likely to apply and be accepted to medical school and to obtain financial aid.

“Doctors are more likely to practice in locations where they have a connection, so we need more people from rural areas to go to medical school in order to have more doctors ultimately practicing in those areas,” said Dr. Wendling.

“We start with a selective admissions process that targets students with experience and interest in practicing in rural communities. Then we match them to their home region or region of interest, and we provide opportunities for at least half their clinical experience to be in rural hospitals and practices.”

The program also pairs medical students with local hospital administrators and physician leaders so they become familiar with the challenges and goals for the health system and the many hats that doctors wear in small towns. They complete a public advocacy project to research and solve a problem for their community, and they get introduced to local institutions such as the Chamber of Commerce, major employers, schools, and the public health department. These relationships help them feel more connected to the community and provide a clearer picture of what living and working in a small town will be like.

Dr. Gallagher did his rotations at a time that R-CHP was just expanding to the lower Peninsula, so while he’s not a formal graduate of the program, he wanted to mimic that deep learning experience in a local community. He tailored his own program to spend as much time in Alpena as possible during his final two years of medical school.

He is one of several recent Michigan State grads who will be training or practicing at MidMichigan Health as a result of those local opportunities. The R-CHP program will place two medical students in Alpena this year and another four next year. In addition, an emergency medicine physician who graduated from the program has committed to return to Alpena after completing residency training.

For his part, Dr. Gallagher is excited to be back and eager to start renewing relationships with his patients and the community.

“Now that I’m back in Alpena, I’m looking forward to deer hunting again, maybe having some chickens, and a garden of my own,” said Dr. Gallagher. “Those are things I couldn’t do in Peoria.”

When asked if he has advice for other students interested in pursuing a similar career path, Dr. Gallagher replied: “I recommend taking full advantage of your third and fourth years in medical school to see what type of environment you want to practice in and then tailoring your residency program to those interests.”

Dr. Gallagher is currently welcoming family medicine patients at his practice at 211 Long Rapids Road in Alpena. Those who would like more information about Dr. Gallagher may call his office at (989) 354-2142 or visit www.midmichigan.org/gallagher.

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