Investing in the future of medicine

By Sheryl Rickard
Reader Contributor

One of my favorite times of the year is when our Idaho WWAMI students arrive at Bonner  General Health.

I’ve spent 34 years — my entire career — at Bonner, starting out as an accounting supervisor after I took my CPA exam, then moving into the CFO role, and then, 16 years ago, I became the hospital’s first female CEO. Bonner is a major employer in our area, with 430 employees. Being at a small hospital in a rural area means you’re part of a community. 

Sheryl Rickard, CEO of Bonner General Health.

For many years, we’ve partnered with the regional medical educational program

called WWAMI (standing for Washington, Wyoming, Alaska, Montana and Idaho) to give medical students a hands-on, immersive experience in rural Idaho.  

One of the most valuable aspects of this program is the bridge it builds between regional and even national medical students and rural Idaho. These are students who may have never visited our area otherwise spending four to 12 weeks immersed in our hospital. 

Idaho WWAMI is the only medical school in the state that offers this type of opportunity.   

I recall one student who got involved in our Food For Our Children backpack program. Outside of his program, he came to the hospital to help us pack food. Students become members of our community, and many express wanting to return to work with us as physicians one day.

Idaho WWAMI elevates our care, plain and simple. You feel the change when the students get here. Our physicians get to share their enthusiasm with bright new students, and hospital staff enjoy seeing their young, energetic faces. As students shadow our family practice doctors in the midst of their rounds, they always come by and visit me, and it makes my day. We get to have this incredible connection with the young Idahoans who are the future of medicine.

For these students, being immersed in rural medicine gives them a taste of everything. We have 62 physicians in our active medical staff, so for a community of our size, we can support many more people than a typical rural hospital. We deliver babies at Bonner, which also isn’t typical for a community our size. We do orthopedic surgery, with six surgeons on staff who stay busy serving a high Medicare population and the ski hill. 

Ours is a robust medical community, with ENT, an ophthalmologist and four OBGYNs, and students get to learn from all that we do here. They get exposure to a community they may never otherwise have interacted with.

We also serve a large county, with patients coming from Montana, Washington and as far north as the Canadian border. It’s a high Medicare population with a lot of chronic diseases. In our Community Health Needs Assessment, obesity always tops the list. We also have a high instance of teen suicide and mental health is a big challenge here. Some of our WWAMI students have gotten involved, supporting the work our psychologist, psychiatrist and nurse practitioner do in our behavioral health clinic. We could bring in two more providers for this clinic and that wouldn’t even begin to fill the need.  

We need more energetic, bright medical professionals who want to work in our communities. WWAMI benefits our hospital in so many ways, yet not everyone knows about the role it plays in rural Idaho. It connects these bright future doctors to our communities. WWAMI is a crucial part of our hospital as a learning and teaching component. After they graduate, many students continue to work in Idaho. Again, these are skilled medical students who could find a job anywhere, but they choose us. 

What an amazing opportunity that doesn’t get the recognition it deserves. I urge Idaho lawmakers to continue to Invest in the future of medicine, and in the health of our North Idaho communities. 

Sheryl Rickard is the CEO of Bonner General Health. She lives in Sandpoint.

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