“The idea of rural medicine has really just been my lifestyle since I was a child,” said Jennifer Davis. “Looking back, it was a mentor I found in high school through the health science program in Rogersville who exposed me to the depth and breadth of rural medicine.”
This fourth-year medical student is in the dual M.D./MPH degree program through the Quillen College of Medicine and College of Public Health. At Quillen, she is on the Rural Primary Care Track (RPCT), which allows students to take their case-based learning component out of the classroom and into the rural communities of Rogersville or Mountain City, Tennessee. There, they work with community physicians and upperclassmen, precept, and apply classroom knowledge in real-life situations. RPCT students also develop and conduct a community-based research project during their second year, as well as complete both a 12-week primary care rotation and a collaborative community project addressing local health problems during their third year.
Davis grew up in a rural, blue-collar environment. Her mother is a retired elementary school teacher and her father, a truck driver, has been a farmer and factory worker. When she was in the eighth grade, she had to make a life-changing decision and pick a career track for high school. Health science stood out to her.
Soon, Davis attended Quillen’s Rural High School Medical Camp, which is designed for students and recent graduates of high schools in rural or underserved areas interested in becoming primary care physicians. And, she had the opportunity to work with Quillen RPCT students in a free clinic in Rogersville.
In addition, she earned the Tennessee Rural Partnership STAR Award. This scholarship from the Tennessee Center for Health Workforce Development allowed her to shadow with her local family physician, Dr. Mark Dalle-Ave, then a faculty member with Quillen College of Medicine who became her mentor.
After earning her bachelor’s degree in kinesiology with a minor in leadership studies at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville, where she was a member of the women’s rowing team, Davis was drawn to Quillen because of its strong focus on rural medicine.
“The connections I established early on showed me that this is a place that was going to be supportive,” she said, “and they’re very committed to their mission to serve the rural communities here in Appalachia.
“There are a lot of social determinants of health here in Appalachia that pull at my heartstrings a little bit,” she continued. “And there’s this circle of life sometimes in the small towns, and I was fortunate enough to get out and to get a higher education. Now I have an opportunity to go back and to serve rural communities. And all of those things that I’ve seen – those struggles, those challenges, those hardships – now I have a platform to do something about them.”
Davis believes taking the dual MPH track will expand her ability to meet those challenges by helping her to go outside the walls of the hospital or clinical setting.
“I really think (physicians) need to get out into their communities, get their boots wet, and meet their patients where they’re at,” she said. “So having this opportunity was just phenomenal and met every criteria that I was looking for in my medical education. I chose to do community health, and with what I’ve learned about the social determinants of health, need-based assessments, and communities – and how to mobilize and get connected with resources that can better serve my patients – that’s something that’s going to be an extra tool in my toolbelt that I’ll use throughout my career.
Davis is applying for a residency in family medicine to gain even more tools that will allow her to achieve her goal of being a “one-stop-shop” that eliminates some of the barriers to health care in rural communities.
“A big thing for me is not having my patients drive 45 minutes for care, but they can come to a family practitioner and get everything they need and have someone who’s going to get out in the community and be there at events, who’s going to advocate for their needs and just be present.”