FARMINGTON — Several University of New Mexico students spent six weeks this summer working at San Juan County clinics as part of an immersion program.

More than 100 students participated this year in the UNM School of Medicine's Practical Immersion Experience, which allows first-year medical students to get hands-on experience with patients in primary care practices. Students from the Albuquerque school worked throughout the state, and seven were assigned to clinics in Farmington and Aztec.

Since the beginning of July, Shawna Tsoodle and Jake Mayfield have worked at Piñon Family Practice, located on East 30th Street in Farmington. They finished their six-week rotation last week.

Dr. Ronald Bliss, a physician at Piñon Family Practice, speaks with University of New Mexico medial student Jake Mayfield on Tuesday at the family practice
Dr. Ronald Bliss, a physician at Piñon Family Practice, speaks with University of New Mexico medial student Jake Mayfield on Tuesday at the family practice on East 30th Street in Farmington. (Jon Austria / The Daily Times)

Mayfield said the program has been helpful because most medical students don't work with patients until their third year of school.

"It's easier to make the connections between the science things and the things you do in the clinic," Mayfield said, "which is important because as you are treating people, you're not necessarily looking at textbooks."

Visiting students shadow a doctor for a couple of days before getting to be in an exam room with a patient, said Mayfield's mentor, Dr. Ronald Bliss, a physician at Piñon Family Practice.

By working with real patients, students learn basic skills, such as interviewing people about their medical histories and current symptoms, examining patients and developing diagnoses. Bliss said working with patients in a clinic also drives home the importance of the job.

"You can put a disease with a person, and see how does it affect them, how does it affect their life, how we can help them, how can we influence them and make them healthier," Bliss said.

Dr. Joseph Pope, a staff physician at Piñon Family Practice, has seen medical students come through the clinic since he started working there in 1994. Pope said he has personally worked with about 70 students over the last 20 years.

Jake Mayfield, a first-year medical student at the University of New Mexico, looks over patient notes on Tuesday at Piñon Family Practice in Farmington.
Jake Mayfield, a first-year medical student at the University of New Mexico, looks over patient notes on Tuesday at Piñon Family Practice in Farmington. (Jon Austria / The Daily Times)

"They are so wide-eyed in a way. They are kind of scared and have such a sense of wonderment when they see us take care of patients," Pope said.

Pope and Dr. Holly Abernethy, Tsoodle's mentor, both said the complexity of working with patients in a family practice clinic often surprises students.

"I think family medicine gets a bad rap," Abernethy said. "People think all we see are sore throats and easy things."

Tsoodle said she enjoyed her time at Piñon Family Practice this summer.

"Being able to actually come in and talk to patients, touch patients, listen to patients — it's been very challenging, but rewarding," Tsoodle said. "I feel a lot more comfortable with my interviewing skills and physical exam skills compared to three months ago."

Joshua Kellogg covers education for The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4627 and jkellogg@daily-times.com. Follow him @jkelloggdt on Twitter.