Dr. Josie Syverson ’13 Talks Rural Family Medicine During COVID-19

Dr. Josie Syverson with one of her littlest patients. (Photo submitted)

From the late 1970s through 2019, the alumni community of the University of Minnesota Medical School, Duluth Campus has included over 230 medical degree graduates who also attended the University of Minnesota Duluth (UMD) as undergraduates. Among these alumni is Josie Syverson ’13, MD, who is currently practicing as a family physician in Benson, Minn., with a population of just over 3,000.

Serving in Rural Family Medicine During COVID-19

As rural communities adjust to the arrival of COVID-19, Dr. Syverson acknowledges the complicated layers that come with it, saying, “Our clinic has gone through the same changes with COVID-19 as other healthcare facilities. Initially, visits were restricted to only essential visits with no wellness exams or elective procedures. We were able to conduct some visits via video, this process had to get up and running rather quickly as it was not something we were routinely doing prior to COVID-19. We also had to quickly develop a process for curbside testing for COVID-19 to reduce exposure in the clinic. Now, we are trying to catch up on many of the routine visits from the spring while also preparing for a likely spike in community illness that comes every fall with kids returning to school and the onset of influenza season.”

As a family physician, Dr. Syverson focuses on female health and wellness, including obstetrics. When considering if expecting mothers in a rural community have had to change how they experience pregnancy, Dr. Syverson agrees that it is different and that new worries abound,including how the challenges of hospital care have increased.

“Expectant mothers have been extremely concerned about becoming infected with COVID-19 as well as concerned for their newborn baby. Luckily, I have not had any mother's in their third trimester experience COVID-19 or infants become infected. Mothers are restricted to one support person at the hospital, and that has been somewhat challenging for them, but they have been understanding,” Dr. Syverson said.

Remembering Campus Life, Education 

While Dr. Syverson reminisces about the time she spent in Duluth as an undergraduate studying biology (’09), and then the additional two years at the Medical School, Duluth Campus before finishing her last two years in the Twin Cities, she recalls the many activities that called her out of the lecture hall. 

“My favorite memories from medical school are playing intramural sports with my classmates. We had a great time playing broomball, volleyball and hockey. We actually did really well,” she said.

When stepping back into class, Dr. Syverson also recognizes that what the Duluth Campus has in spades is something that not too many other places can boast. “My medical school was extremely close. We studied hard but we also had a lot of fun together,” she said. “I loved our smaller class size. It knit this really supportive group of people all with the same goal in mind.”

After Dr. Syverson earned her medical degree, she went into the Pacific Northwest and completed her family medicine residency at Idaho State. She returned to Benson where her hometown roots were an important anchor to her decision in becoming a rural physician. 

“I was drawn to the University of Minnesota Duluth for my undergraduate degree first because of all the outdoor experiences the area had to offer,” she said. “I decided to stay for medical school because of the unique focus that the Duluth campus has toward rural full spectrum medicine. This is exactly where I want to be for my family and for my career.” 

Giving Back to Today’s Medical Students

Throughout her career experiences in her hometown, Dr. Syverson has also served as a preceptor in the Duluth campus’ Rural Medical Scholars Program (RMSP). Current medical school students who opt to experience RMSP take on rural visits five times in their first two years of medical school. Practicing physicians, like Dr. Syverson, agree to mentor students who learn day-to-day tasks by shadowing during their working hours. 

“I have been precepting students for about two years now, including medical students, PA students and CNP students, mostly from the University of Minnesota Duluth or University of North Dakota,” she said. “I enjoyed having a RMSP student from the Duluth campus come multiple times throughout the year last year. Her visits were one week at a time, and it provided great continuity opportunities. Although the timing didn't work out for her to help me deliver a baby, she did deliver a set of twin lambs with my husband on our family farm during one of her visits.” 

As with most careers in 2020, the work as a preceptor changed this past winter and spring because of the current virus. “Unfortunately, during the first weeks of COVID-19 students were asked to leave their current rotations and were only brought back in July. Students follow the same restrictions as all other staff and some programs are not allowing students to work with suspected or confirmed COVID-19 patients. I look forward to students now being allowed to complete their rotations amid the current pandemic as it is an essential part of their training.” 

Currently, Dr. Syverson is precepting a PA student on an eight-week rotation. She will also host her first Rural Opportunities in Medical Education (ROME) student from UND; a program that is similar to the Duluth Campus curriculum. 

“I am looking forward to the continuity of care this student will have and will hopefully bring the RPAP program back to Benson in the near future as well,” she said.

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