Scholarship Recipient Eager to Help Bring Healthcare to Rural Idaho

Mary Barinaga, M.D., Idaho WWAMI assistant regional dean, initiates Andrew Nilsen at the White Coat Ceremony during his first semester in the Idaho WWAMI program. New medical students all over the country receive their white coats for the first time and experience the prestige and honor that this symbol holds. White coats have been worn by physicians since the 1890s.

A career in medicine will give Andrew Nilsen the opportunity and satisfaction to help people

Family history may have played a role in Andrew Nilsen wanting to become a doctor for as long as he can remember, but it wasn’t the only reason.

“I know it’s cliché, but one of the biggest draws to medicine for me is the opportunity to help people,” Nilsen said. “I idolized my grandfather who was a family physician in Las Vegas and my father works as a physical therapist so I’ve always had medicine on my radar.”

Andrew Nilsen

Nilsen is pursuing his goal of becoming a doctor as a fourth-year medical student in the WWAMI Medical Education Program, a five-state regional partnership between the University of Washington School of Medicine and the states of Washington, Wyoming, Alaska, Montana and Idaho. The Idaho WWAMI program allows 80 students — all of whom call the Gem State home — to attend their first two years of medical school at the University of Idaho. During the clinical phase of their education, the students can complete almost all of their required clerkships across sites in Idaho, or, if they choose, anywhere within the WWAMI region.

The Blue Cross of Idaho Foundation for Health offers Rural Initiative Scholarships to medical students from Idaho enrolled in the WWAMI program at the University of Idaho who have a desire to practice medicine in rural Idaho. The state has a physician shortage, and the lack of healthcare providers in remote parts of the state is a growing issue.

Nilsen, who grew up in Oakley, a city of fewer than 1,000 people located near Burley in southcentral Idaho, is one of the scholarship recipients.

“I saw the difficulties some of my family and friends had accessing medical care, mostly because of distance, and I feel like I can be part of the solution to that problem,” he said. “My passion for rural and underserved care has increased exponentially during medical school.”

Andrew Nilsen explains some of the research he’s conducted during his medical school career.

Much of that appreciation came from working at Terry Reilly Health Services, a federally qualified health center (FQHC), in Nampa. Medical students do rotations at various facilities to learn from established doctors and gain experience. It was an eye-opening experience at Terry Reilly, where he found likeminded professionals who put the patient first.

“Before working there, I didn’t even know what an FQHC was,” he said. “I love that there are places for people who often cannot obtain care, due to various reasons, to receive excellent care. Some people believe doctors are just out to make a lot of money. Those I worked with at Terry Reilly are truly focused on helping patients get affordable care. I learned so many little tricks to help patients save money and to help them navigate an often confusing and frustrating healthcare system.”

Dr. Sarah Staller is a doctor at Terry Reilly Health Services. She was impressed after spending time and working with Nilsen at the clinic.

“Andrew brings a kind, respectful, and empathetic demeanor, as well as conscientiousness and enthusiasm for learning, to his care of patients,” Dr. Staller said. “He is a very motivated independent learner who is well liked by patients and their families. I appreciate his strong work ethic and contributions to patient care, and he goes above and beyond when needed for his patients.”

It was another learning moment that led to a change in medical aspirations. He had been considering cardiology or cardiothoracic surgery as a specialty but an experience working with a cardiologist got him thinking about a different path.

Andrew Nilsen received a COVID-19 vaccination so he can continue to safely work in healthcare settings during medical school.

“I became frustrated that we were only addressing the patient’s heart problems and recommending that they see someone else for everything else,” he said. “I wanted to treat the patient as a whole.”

That experience pointed him toward primary care. He has since decided on family medicine because of the chance to work with adults and children.

“I love getting to know people and helping with a broad range of problems,” he said, adding that he will find out in March where he will be attending residency. Medical students do a three-year residency as part of their training.

“We are so thrilled that he has chosen family medicine as his specialty,” Dr. Staller said. “Andrew was great to work with as a student, and he will make an outstanding doctor.”

The Nilsen family. Andrew, Kaitlyn and son Winslow.

Nilsen, who earned his undergraduate degree at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, is married. He and his wife, Kaitlyn, became parents for the first time when son Winslow was born in November. They learned about the scholarship from the Blue Cross of Idaho Foundation for Health a few weeks later.

“We are so grateful for the general investment in my education, especially during an expensive period of time in our lives,” he said.

What’s next for the Nilsens is a move to Fort Worth, Texas. He was matched into a family medicine residency at John Peter Smith Hospital, where he’ll spend three to five years. After that, it’s back to the Gem State.

Nilsen hasn’t decided exactly where his family will settle in Idaho, but operating a small practice is something he’s considering.

“I learned the importance of looking out for my neighbor starting at a young age,” he said. “The Blue Cross of Idaho Foundation for Health is giving me the opportunity to receive quality medical training so I can pass that quality care on to my future patients.”