By Martin Kidston

When the University of Montana launched its Family Medicine Residency program in 2013, it faced the daunting task of filling its first cohort of doctors and graduating them after three years to practice in underserved areas of Montana.

Now, it's faced with a different task of sifting through 800 applications submitted by medical students looking to win one of the program's 10 coveted slots for 2017.

The pile of applications represents a record for the maturing Missoula-based medical program.

“We launched in July of 2013 with our first class coming in, and we didn't have a reputation yet,” said Rebecca Morgan, project and communications manager for Family Medicine Residency of Western Montana. “You're trying to get people to apply, and we had incredible luck with our first class.”

That first class of 10 doctors graduated this year and six stayed in Montana, marking another program success as it looks to place more family doctors in underserved areas of the state.

Of the six who stayed in Montana to practice, two went to St. Joseph's in Polson and two others went to St. Luke's in Ronan. The last two now practice medicine at the Community Health Center in Helena and the other at a clinic in the Flathead Valley.

“We have 56 counties in Montana, and 53 of them are considered underseved, or health profession shortage areas,” Morgan said. “I think there's several counties that don't even have a family doctor. That forces people to travel to get health care, or not seek it all.”

Program director Ned Vasquez and staff will cull the 800 applications down to 100. Of those, 80 will be considered for seven available slots in Missoula and 40 will be considered for three positions in Kalispell.

The interviews began in October and will last through early January. The applicants are ranked and matched through the National Resident Matching Program. The match results will be announced in March and the new class will begin in June.

“We're interviewing medical students from schools throughout the United States, and the quality of candidates has continued to increase,” said Vasquez. “We should be well-positioned for another strong match in March.”

The program traces its humble beginnings to 2013 when it welcomed its first class of 10 residents. Since its inception, the program has doubled the number of family doctors trained each year in Montana.

The program's three sponsoring hospitals include the Providence St. Patrick Hospital and Community Medical Center in Missoula, as well as Kalispell Regional Healthcare. While in their residency, the doctors also train at nine rural sites ranging from the Blackfeet Community Hospital in Browning to the Barrett Hospital and Healthcare in Dillon.

They also train at the Partnership Health Center in Missoula.

“It's a full-spectrum practice,” Morgan said. “That's your first stop as a patient. When you go to a doctor yearly, it's probably with a family doctor. If there's something the family doctor isn't able to discern, they may refer you on to a specialist.”

Contact reporter Martin Kidston at