Patients of all ages: Dr. Brooke Griffin, right, listens to the lungs of 15-month-old Octavia Andrade as her dad, Juan Andrade, holds her next to mom, Hannah Bales, in the pediatrics department on Friday at Union Hospital. Tribune-Star/Joseph C. Garza
Patients of all ages: Dr. Brooke Griffin, right, listens to the lungs of 15-month-old Octavia Andrade as her dad, Juan Andrade, holds her next to mom, Hannah Bales, in the pediatrics department on Friday at Union Hospital. Tribune-Star/Joseph C. Garza
A program formed 45 years ago to bring new primary care physicians to Terre Haute has become a shining star in the local medical community.

Family Medicine Residency at Union Health is a training ground for new doctors who seek the connection of providing family health care in their communities.

The three-year residency program annually trains 21 “residents” through the leadership of program director Dr. Steven McDonald, himself a 32-year family physician whose medical career began when the program opened in 1976.

“We’ve made a tremendous impact on this service area,” McDonald said, noting that 214 doctors have graduated from the residency program. In addition to Terre Haute, many of those physicians have served in Rockville, Sullivan, Clay City, Brazil, Linton, Clinton and Illinois communities.

The residency program operates in the clinic of Valley Professionals Community Health Center, located on the second floor of the Professional Office Building on the Union Health campus.

The residents also work in Union Hospital, with three on duty each night as they go through their work weeks of 70-plus hours.

“Every year we take seven medical students who have graduated from medical school, and essentially ... we have three years to turn them into family doctors,” McDonald said on a recent Friday as many of the residents were in the classroom as part of their training.

The program has nine major elective tracks, including a rural experience, hospitalist medicine, emergency medicine, advanced obstetrics including operative OB, academic medicine, sports medicine, geriatric medicine and outpatient medicine.

Getting into the program is a competitive process. McDonald said about 1,000 applications are received each year for the seven spots available. The applicants are narrowed down to 70 before the seven finalists are chosen.

Every doctor who has finished medical school goes through a residency program of some sort. Indiana requires three years of residency for a family medicine physician. Other specialties require longer residencies.

McDonald said the Valley Professionals clinic sees about 25,000 people per year. As a federally-qualified health center, a majority of patients have lower incomes.

All of the residents are trained in obstetrics and pediatrics, and all work in the hospital. The health center operates an Alzheimer’s clinic and has formal medication-assisted treatment and group therapy for addictions. Eight behaviorists offer counseling. And the residents learn a variety of procedures such as colonoscopy, ultrasound and vasectomy.

Of the program’s 214 graduates, more than 50 have stayed in the Wabash Valley through the years. Many of the current residents also plan to plant their medical practice in the Midwest.

Julia Buck, a current second-year resident, said she plans to practice family medicine in Paris, Illinois, with fellow resident Laney Robinson of Paris, who finishes her residency in a few weeks.

Family medicine provides a lot of variety in practicing medicine, Buck said.

“You get to advocate for your patients in a way no other specialty can because you get to know them longitudinally,” Buck said of patients. “You know who they are, what their goals are in life. You know their niece’s neighbor’s dog’s name. It’s a special relationship.”

Some of the residents work full-time in the hospital emergency room. Some work as hospitalists, becoming doctors who will not plant themselves in an office.

McDonald said family medicine came about in 1969 as a specialty with the thought that a well-rounded doctor with good training should be able to handle 90% of patient needs.

“Here specifically, we are what is called a patient-centered medical home,” McDonald said.

Many larger residencies are affiliated with a medical school. The Union residency program is affiliated with Indiana University School of Medicine, which has a campus at the neighboring Landsbaum Center, and with a newer medical program at Marian University in Indianapolis.

All of the Union residents also teach current medical students.

“When you do teaching, you get smarter,” McDonald said.

Among the current residents are Caleb Unger, a Sullivan County native who is in his first year as a resident. He attended medical school in the Caribbean, and said he plans to practice medicine in Sullivan County after his residency.

Abigail Etters is a California native who came to Terre Haute to attend Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology as an undergraduate. After medical school in New Mexico, she decided she wanted to return to the Wabash Valley for her residency because she likes the community.

The fact that the program is the only residency program in the area also means more experience in training.

“The camaraderie is second to none and the opportunities are pretty excellent,” Robinson said.

The residency program has 10 full-time faculty members who are dedicated to teaching and training family medicine physicians who are compassionate, highly respected leaders engaged in their medical communities, McDonald said. The residents are well-equipped to manage a variety of patient populations while recognizing health challenges in their communities.

“Our goal is to graduate compassionate, competent, and ethical clinicians who are stewards of their community,” he said.

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