By Martin Kidston

Missoula County inked an agreement this week between Partnership Health Center and Johns Hopkins University to bring another student into the clinical rotation at the Missoula-based clinic.

The agreement is just one of many affiliations maintained by the clinic, enabling graduate-level students to complete their medical training while patients receive the care they need.

“We have quite a few affiliation agreements for nearly every level of medical training,” said Mary Jane Nealon, the clinic's director of innovation. “We really believe in an academic learning environment. It's a great way to expose people to the health care field.”

While the clinic is best known for its Family Medicine Residency program – one that trains family doctors under the sponsorship of the University of Montana in affiliation with the University of Washington – its other programs provide students a similar pathway to employment in the various fields of health care.

The affiliations include nursing students from Montana State University and Salish Kootenai College, dental students from the Arizona School of Dentistry, and physician assistants in an upstart program at UM, among others.

“On a given day, it's fair to say we have six to eight students,” said Nealon. “The main thing you want to do is make sure they get attention. It's a commitment on behalf of the staff to really engage. We have a social worker student here for the year, and she's getting tremendous assistance.”

According to the Montana Department of Labor and Industry, the health care industry faces significant labor force challenges. It remains an area of employment where efforts are being made to ensure a trained workforce is ready to fill vacant positions.

Health care remains the state's largest single industry, employing more than 66,000 workers. It's also one of the fastest growing. Estimates suggest the industry will add roughly 1,300 jobs every year through 2024.

“We're also touring the high school classes,” said Nealon. “Only a small number of students go to medical school in Montana. There's a movement to expose more kids to careers in health care.”

Whether they're nurses, doctors, dentists or counselors, students who complete their practicum at the clinic emerge to practice in their chosen field. For workforce development, Nealon said, it's beneficial to expose the students to community-level care.

“I think it's really vital,” she said. “The culture of taking care of your community, which is what a community health center does, exposes people to what the need is in the community, and it piques their interest in serving in community health.”

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