FARMINGTON — Gov. Janet Mills on Tuesday announced $2.25 million in grant funding to expand health care training opportunities, a much-needed investment in Maine’s rural workforce, the recipients said.

“Rural Maine is my home. I care deeply about the people who live there, and I want to ensure that they have access to high-quality health care services,” Mills said in a prepared statement.

A group led by MaineHealth, the University of Maine System and St. Joseph’s College will receive a combined $1.6 million from Mills’ Maine Jobs and Recovery Plan to go toward improving graduate medical education opportunities in rural communities for physicians, social workers and nurses, respectively.

Of the $1.6 million, $950,000 will go to the sponsoring institutions of Maine’s four accredited physician training programs — Maine Medical Center in Portland, Central Maine Medical Center in Lewiston, Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor and the Maine-Dartmouth Family Medicine Residency in Augusta — to fund the Maine Rural Graduate Medical Education Collaborative, or the MERGE Collaborative.

Dr. Kalli Varaklis, an OB/GYN and director of Maine Med’s residency program, said that despite the wealth of experience training physicians at each of these programs, the MERGE Collaborative is their first time collaborating.

“There is good evidence that where somebody does their residency training very much influences where they end up practicing,” Varaklis said. “And so the idea is in a rural state where we have difficulty placing physicians across the state, it makes a lot of sense to increase the number of opportunities for people to train rurally so that they actually end up staying in rural communities,” Varaklis said.


The collaborative will be work together to create new curriculum and to set standards for clinical supervisors and residents that “really focuses on rural competencies and specifically those in Maine,” she said.

They are also working on the launch of an online learning platform where physicians from anywhere in the state can access resources and courses for continuing education.

One major goal of the program is the addition of four new training sites where residents can do rotations — at Franklin Memorial Hospital in Farmington, Bridgton Hospital, Blue Hill Hospital and an addiction medicine-specific program at Stephens Memorial Hospital in Norway, with four more planned for the future.

“In the past, it would have been difficult for a Maine Medical Center resident to go to Blue Hill. Not impossible, but difficult,” Varaklis said. “But now it’s going to be very streamlined.”

Franklin Memorial Hospital in Farmington will benefit from a $2.25 million in grant announced Tuesday by Gov. Janet Mills to expand health care training opportunities in rural areas of the state, including Franklin County. Morning Sentinel file


The collaborative is also creating a summer internship program for eight medical students to rotate at one the training sites. The program is geared toward students enrolled in a Maine-based program, such as the University of New England or in the Maine Med-Tufts University Maine Track program, or who grew up in rural Maine and attend medical school out of state.


In an effort to also create a robust network of educators, two faculty members from each of the four sites will be selected to enroll in an 18-month, grant-funded course called the Rural Education Leadership Academy.

“Hopefully it’s a kind of workforce development for the whole rural state,” said Dr. Bethany Picker, the medical director for Central Maine Medical Center Family Medicine Residency.

Picker said that with CMMC already being Central Maine Healthcare network’s hub and with an established community clinic at Rumford Hospital, Bridgton Hospital was a natural choice to be one of the rural training sites.

The town of Bridgton and its surrounding communities in northern Cumberland County on the edge of the Sebago Lakes region and Oxford County, also has a unique population and health needs. The population there is older, and swells significantly in the summer, which Picker said provides some opportunities to practice acute care. Residents will also be able to practice addiction medicine in a rural community.

Picker said that CMMC has also done a lot of faculty development on the diversity, equity and inclusion of both providers and patients and will bring that work to the residency programs and the educator trainings.

MaineHealth, Northern Light Health, the Maine Hospital Association and other health care networks will also receive a $650,000 grant from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to fund the Building-ME Network, a collaborative project aimed at streamlining the process for trainees and clinical supervisors to find clinical placements with rural health care providers.


The program’s aim is to increase opportunities for trainees across specialties and positions, to find the clinical rotations they need to complete their programs in a rural community, said Jolene Luce, who is the director of the Western Maine Area Health Education Center and based at Franklin Memorial Hospital.

Students need teachers and the program will also increase support for clinical supervisors, or preceptors.

“So this grant really allows the growth and development for us to continue to do that. So for a small, rural hospital like Franklin Memorial, it’s completely vital. This type of pipelining effort is what really is going to support our health care workforce for tomorrow,” Luce said.

The work that Luce and other partners are doing will add over 500 additional weeks of training each of the next two years, Kneka Smith, MaineHealth’s vice president of operations for academic affairs, said.

“Right now, it’s a very fragmented system in communities and statewide,” for students and supervisors to connect. “And so we’re looking to put together through this partnership a centralized way to link students to preceptors and training.”

Luce, like Varaklis, pointed to data that shows that health care workers tend to stay in the communities where they trained. And while there may be students that want to work in a rural community, limited resources means that hospitals like FMH aren’t able to get the word out about opportunities there as well as larger hospitals or health care centers.

“That’s like another level to that as well. So being sure that they know that we are here and what we can offer,” she said. And the benefit of this being a collaborative effort means that if FMH, for example, does not have a clinical supervisor on staff for one specialty, FMH could refer a student to another hospital in Maine that does.

The funding will also help expand student housing in areas such as Farmington. Housing is frequently cited by rural health care providers as a significant barrier to trainees and residents who want to work in rural areas.

The grant will be “hugely supportive completely across the board with those types of efforts,” Luce said.

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