Elko, like much of rural Nevada, suffers from a doctor shortage.
That ailment became less acute last year when the University of Nevada, Reno School of Medicine created a residency program in the northeast Nevada community that’s halfway between Reno and Salt Lake City.
“Elko is perfectly set up to have a residency program. It is kind of situated in an area that’s between Salt Lake and Reno and it kind of is an area people would like to go to for their medical care but they really lacked primary care,” said Dr. Daniel Spogen, chair of Family and Community Medicine at UNR Medical School.
Spogen had been trying to create the program for several years but it wasn't until then-Governor Brian Sandoval established a grant program to help fund residency programs around the state that they had the money to establish the program.
The Elko Family Medicine Residency program puts family care doctors in a Nevada Health Centers clinic, where each physician sees about 35 patients a week.
Spogen said it may seem like a difficult job to recruit physicians to practice in a rural area, but he said there are advantages.
“There is a distinct advantage in rural residency training in that physicians are really interested in doing procedures are much more likely to be able to do them in the rural setting than in the city setting," he said.
Dr. Nittu Singh agreed. She is one of the first doctors to be chosen for the program. Singh said she was attracted to it because it would be hands-on and full-spectrum medicine.
“There was the ability to do a lot for the community out there and I think that was very intriguing for me," she said.
Most people who grew up in a city might balk at moving to the country, Singh grew up in a smaller city in California's central coast and she understands how difficult it can be to access quality care.
“It was hard for patients to travel to get health care or my family members to travel to health care. So, I can relate to the patients out there,” she said.
And while small towns and cities might have a reputation for shunning outsiders, Singh said her patients were eager to get to know her and build a relationship.
“They truly trust us, and they want that relationship with their doctor,” she said.
Billie Crapo is the CEO of the Elko Area Chamber of Commerce. She said everyone is open to the program because they are providing much-needed health care.
“One of the biggest concerns is there was not enough doctors accepting Medicaid.," she said, "There was not enough doctors accepting Medicare and so people were going out of town or just not going to see the doctor because they couldn’t afford to.”
Crapo pointed out that not everyone in her community works for the mines and makes mining wages. This program offers quality health care for everyone else.
“This program is really helping the people that have moderate income, that are single parents and especially people that are retired that are on Medicare and on fixed incomes," she said, "This gives them a great opportunity to have great primary care physicians instead of using the emergency room as their primary care.”
While there might not be an impact that can be measured in dollars and cents, Crapo believes the program has made Elko and the surrounding area healthier and stronger.
For Walter Davis, the president and CEO of Nevada Health Centers the nonprofit group working with UNR and the state to provide a place for the residents to practice, healthy communities is what it is all about.
"Nevada Health Centers has been there for the last 15 years providing care and services and we needed to figure out a better way to manage the patient support team because I believe every patient deserves health care no matter where they decide to live and if they decide to live in a rural area great for them. It is us coming to them not them having to travel to anywhere else,” he said.
On top of providing quality care for the short term, Walter said residency programs can bring long term care to a community.
"Once a resident has an opportunity to practice in our environment they nine times out of 10 will stay in that surrounding area," he said, "Our goal is to make sure we keep providers with the shortage in the Nevada market.”
Dr. Singh is proof of that. She told State of Nevada she would consider staying in Elko when her residency is done.
The residency has been deemed a success and will expand from four doctors to six this summer.
Dr. Daniel Spogen, chair, Family and Community Medicine, UNR Med; Walter Davis, president/CEO, Nevada Health Centers; Billie Crapo, CEO, Elko Area Chamber of Commerce; Dr. Nittu Singh, UNR Med Elko Family Medicine resident