Most people in Santa Fe and Northern New Mexico are unaware of the graduate medical education program in family medicine that is a vital part of the region. The Christus St. Vincent Regional Medical Center/UNM Northern New Mexico Family Medicine Residency program has provided direct and indirect benefits for health care and health systems in the state for over 20 years and, in June, graduated its most recent class of four family doctors who will begin practice in rural New Mexico.

As national and state health care initiatives move forward, both to expand coverage for uninsured and look to control costs, the demand for high quality primary care will grow. The Christus St. Vincent’s/Northern New Mexico program is a vital part of that future.

Lack of access to family doctors finds patients driving long distances for primary care or going directly to overburdened hospital emergency departments which are not the most appropriate place for many problems. Family doctors provide comprehensive acute, preventive and chronic disease care at a single site. They also partner with advanced practice professionals such as nurse practitioners, physician assistants and midwives to expand care.

The Christus St. Vincent’s/UNM program has been a national leader in special training for physicians who intend to practice in rural communities. Sixty-seven percent of program graduates practice in New Mexico, and over a quarter of them practice in underserved communities in New Mexico and the U.S. As part of their training, family medicine residents spend time in Indian Health Service sites, rural community health centers and small towns throughout the state.

Residency education helps improve the quality of care in hospitals and helps control costs. Teaching services have lower costs and shorter length of hospital stay than non-teaching services. Residents engage in quality improvement projects as part of their training and bring ideas and energy to hospital care.

The historic partnership with La Familia Medical Center helps expand care to at risk populations in the region. Residents work in outreach programs in schools, Indian Health Service sites, train in addiction treatment and suboxone prescribing, and have behavioral health professionals as engaged teachers and providers of mental health care.

Health care is a great source of well-paying jobs and is one of the few areas of job growth in rural communities. But those jobs often depends on the ability of medical schools to produce graduates who see small town and rural communities as places they would like to live and practice. Without a continuing and even growing number of graduates from the Christus St. Vincent’s/UNM program, hospitals and clinics will not be staffed and communities may suffer both economic and health losses.

Rural educators from all over the world came to Albuquerque earlier in October for the biennial World Family Medicine Conference on Rural Education. If educators from around the world are coming to New Mexico to learn how to train doctors for rural health careers, it would be good for the Santa Fe community to support the program in their midst and the tremendous added value it brings to the city and region.

Dr. Mario Pacheco is a native New Mexican who has practiced at La Familia Medical Center and Christus St. Vincent Regional Medical Center since 1989, when he completed his training at the University of New Mexico School of Medicine. He is the founding director of the Northern New Mexico Family Medicine Residency Program in Santa Fe. Dr. John J. Frey is an emeritus professor of family medicine and community health and past chair of family medicine at the University of Wisconsin. He lives in Santa Fe and volunteers with the UNM/Christus St. Vincent’s residency program.

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