Wausau made doctors

(First published in the March 21, 2019 issue of City Pages)

Matt Novitch is part of the Medical College of Wisconsin’s first graduating class at the new Wausau campus. It’s a big deal, because this rare, accelerated program aims to addresses the state’s physician shortage


In May, Matt Novitch, of Stillwater, Minn., will be part of the Wausau medical school’s first class of graduates. Of the 13 soon-to-be-graduates, most have been matched with residency training programs in Wisconsin or Minnesota. Novitch was accepted into a residency program in Washington state, but likes the idea of returning to the Wausau area when he begins as a practicing physician.

Matt Novitch nearly went into the Air Force to be a pilot until he found out he was color blind (yes, people can have a degree of color blindness and not know it). Instead, he attended the University of Minneapolis and majored in neuroscience, then decided to pursue medical school. In 2016 he enrolled in the Medical College of Wisconsin’s brand new program in Wausau.

The Air Force’s loss turned out to be Wausau’s gain.

Novitch is one of 13 students in the first graduating class at the Medical College of Wisconsin Wausau campus. These 13 soon-to-be-graduates are proving a point that many in the medical community doubted: That a three-year accelerated program could actually work.

There have been some learning curves along the way. Not everyone can make it through the accelerated program, or wants to, for various reasons. Medical school is notoriously challenging and attracts an elite group of students. Those who can complete the program in less than the standard four years? “Those students graduating the program this year are a special subset of an already special group, to be able to finish in three years,” says Lisa Dodson, campus dean of the Medical College of Wisconsin.

The idea behind an accelerated program is two-fold: It saves money for the student; and second, it allows them to start their residencies sooner and more quickly become full-fledged practicing doctors. Which is important for a state facing a shortage of physicians.

The MCW’s Green Bay campus is the only other medical school in the state to offer an accelerated three-year program, and only a handful of others exist nationwide.

The 13 graduates (come May) are among the 24 students in the Medical College’s first class in Wausau. That means over half the class was able to complete the accelerated program. That’s enough to cause many other colleges to take notice, and the skepticism is turning into inquiry. MCW administrators say colleagues they spoke with at conferences told them they were crazy to create a medical college that could graduate someone through in only three years. At least so far, the Wausau program is proving them wrong.

The Wausau campus is also an experiment in the efficacy of a small medical school. How can a small, close-knit medical college compete with the big schools and big cities?

Pretty well, it turns out. All of the 13 graduating students last week were matched to a residency — a 100% rate that MCW’s Green Bay and Milwaukee campuses can’t tout.

The school has been able to innovate its curriculum, and—this is an important mission behind MCW’s creation of the Wausau campus— provided community-based projects that gives future doctors plenty of experiences with people and organizations outside the medical school, located within Aspirus Wausau Hospital. Administrators say medical students here have built tighter relationships with their teachers, and often get to work with multiple health care providers.

But there are challenges too, in being in central Wisconsin. Future doctors sometimes had to travel farther out for internships while attending MCW — some as far as Eau Claire during their time on campus.

And in the bigger picture, these 13 students graduating this spring represent the first in a much longer experiment: Can the program help curtail the doctor shortage in Wisconsin, and especially in central and northern parts of the state?

It’s off to a good start, as the majority will complete their post-graduate residencies in Wisconsin. And even students leaving for a residency outside the state say they would consider coming back, having enjoyed their time in Wausau.

The answer will be critical, as Wisconsin is slated to face a serious shortage in the next 15 years.

Small and connected


Ryan Huyhn is among the Medical College of Wisconsin’s first class of graduates at the Wausau campus. Huynh grew up in Minnesota and attended Princeton before teaching biology and wildlife conservation in Singapore. After his residency in Minnesota, he hopes to practice in either his home state or Wisconsin.

Ryan Huynh, 30, sat at the front of the ballroom area at the Hilton Garden Inn in Rib Mountain. The room full of people watched with MCW administrators, teachers and students (dressed as Harry Potter characters) as the Sorting Hat was placed on Huynh’s head. Huynh beamed at the audience, with a big smile on his face and Harry Potter glasses covering his eyes. Owls brought in by Antigo’s raptor center, REGI, watched on in the corner.

The Thursday morning ceremony last week is one all medical students go through on Match Day, when med school grads learn what residency program they’re placed in. It’s like a sports draft for medical college students, though usually it’s a far less dramatic affair. On Thursday the Sorting Hat made jokes and told personal anecdotes about the students, and built up the suspense before naming the program which they would be attending. The whole thing took about 45 minutes.

The fact that every graduating student was matched with a residency program is a big feat for any medical college, especially one graduating its first class of students, says Theresa Gutsch, campus administrator of the MCW in Wausau. “It really speaks to what our whole team was doing,” Gutsch says.

Students in their last year of medical school apply for residency programs in their chosen specialty. The candidates then go through a series of interviews with the teaching health care facilities they are selected to interview for, which could number in the dozens. The residency programs—run at hospitals and clinics around the U.S.— rank the students, and the students rank the programs, Dodson explains. Everything is fed into a computer and an algorithm provides the best matches.

The Harry Potter theme might seem like just a charming anecdote, but it really represents more than that. The school’s small size creates a family-like atmosphere, Gutsch says, and fosters a closer connection among students, with faculty, and with the community.

Even at the larger campuses within the Medical College of Wisconsin umbrella, the residency match ceremony is much simpler: read a name and the residency program they’re going to. A Sorting Hat at a large campus would likely run out of time for inside jokes and puns before getting through several hundred names, after all.

The Wausau campus’ small size appealed to Ryan Huynh, who grew up in Minnesota and attended Princeton before teaching biology and wildlife conservation in Singapore. Huynh’s twin brother is a doctor and that also inspired him to seek out medical school.

Huynh had a number of options but a three-year program located near his home in Minnesota was too good to pass up, Huynh says.

The medical school has been primarily focusing on primary care doctors and bringing them to Wisconsin. “We want to create doctors for this part of the region, for central Wisconsin,” says dean Lisa Dodson.

That’s critical. There’s already a shortage of family physicians in Wisconsin, and it’s expected to become worse. A report by the Wisconsin Council on Medical Education and Workforce forecasts a statewide shortage of 745 primary care doctors by 2035. Part of that is due to retirements. Roughly 40% of current doctors are expected to retire by that date. Retirements outpacing young entries into the workforce is impacting most areas of employment, and the medical field is not immune to those changing demographics.

Huynh learned Thursday that he was accepted into his top-ranked placement, a residency program at Abbot Northwestern Hospital in Minneapolis. He’s excited by the choice, and says after the residency he hopes to practice in either Minnesota or Wisconsin.

Novitch, from Stillwater, Minn., also cited the three-year option in choosing MCW in Wausau over a highly ranked program in Omaha. Being near home helped solidify the decision, he says.

He’s done some impressive stuff these past three years in Wausau. During medical school he helped form a company that developed an app to give pre-procedure instructions to patients at the time they need it. It could save hospitals around the country millions of dollars — procedures often get canceled because patients haven’t followed prep instructions. That’s expensive, because everyone scheduled to perform the procedure still has to be paid for their time, Novitch explains. The app is quickly gaining traction among hospital systems.

Novitch on Thursday was placed at the University of Washington hospital system, but says Wausau is a very tempting place to return when begins to practice. He enjoyed his three years in the area; that includes the college, and the amenities of central Wisconsin.

“I like Wausau and the thought of coming back here,” Novitch says. “You’ve got the ski hill, and the lake. Madison is only two hours away. Minnesota is about two and a half hours away.” Novitch says the distance to home is just about perfect and the cost of living paired with a doctor’s salary would work out well financially. “I could see myself coming back here.”

Of the 13 graduates, eight of those will stay in Wisconsin based residencies, most at the University of Wisconsin medical system and the Medical College of Wisconsin affiliated hospital networks. All 13 at least applied to residencies within Wisconsin, Gutsch says.

That means 54% of its debuting class of graduates will stay in Wisconsin. And that result is better than the 30% staying in Wisconsin from the Milwaukee campus and 37% from the Green Bay school. “We are very pleased with the results of the match,” Gutsch says.

Time will tell if the MCW Wausau campus can really put a dent in the state’s doctor shortage. Because one of its goals is to inspire future physicians to live and practice in Wisconsin—especially outside Madison and Milwaukee—the program focuses on and heavily weights applicants with ties to Wisconsin or the Midwest, making them even more likely to stay in the area. Though 8 of the 13 graduates are entering residencies in Wisconsin (and two more in Minnesota), there’s no guarantee they will stay here when they begin to practice. But having a positive connection to the Wausau area does make it more likely.

MCW partners with the Central Wisconsin Convention and Visitors Bureau to highlight the area’s attractions to medical college students. And all the students engage in community-based projects that worked with local organizations such as The Women’s Community and Wausau School District.

It’s those connections that the Medical College of Wisconsin hopes will inspire the next generation of doctors to consider the Wausau area and Wisconsin in general when they decide where to hang their shingle, so to speak.