Since the late 60s, the DIMER partnership has helped hundreds find their way to med school

As one of only a handful of states without a medical school, Delaware has had to get creative when it comes to finding its next generation of medical professionals.

Since 1969, the Delaware Institute of Medical Education and Research has operated as an alternative to a state-supported medical school, helping hundreds of Delaware medical students earn their degrees.

Recently, Christiana Care Health System’s Newark campus celebrated its fifth year as a DIMER Branch Campus, enabling medical students the opportunity to have their entire residency in one location.

The ongoing DIMER partnership between the Higher Education Office, Christiana Care Health system, the Sidney Kimmel Medical College of Thomas Jefferson University of Philadelphia, and the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine (PCOM), results in 20 admission slots at Kimmel and five at PCOM reserved for Delaware applicants each year.

The agreement effectively allows the two schools to operate as Delaware’s ad hoc medical school, helping produce doctors and other medical professionals that hopefully are returning to their home state to open their practice.

According to Dr. Lisa Maxwell, associate chief learning officer at Christiana Care’s Delaware Branch Campus, not having an in-state medical school could seem like a barrier to students seeking a career in health care.

The DIMER program, she said, removes that barrier.

“People may not think we have a medical school here – you can’t see it from the highway – but we have things in place … that gives you the same benefits,” she said.

Delaware applicants to the two supporting schools go into a pool of hundreds of applicants instead of thousands, narrowing their chance of acceptance, Maxwell said.

“That benefit cannot be understated,” Maxwell said. “It’s not out there and publicized, but that’s a huge part of it.”

Maxwell said the 25 slots are always filled, with PCOM sometimes taking more students than their obligation calls for. She added that there are over 40 students in the current year – the largest class so far – that will attend one of the two schools, which are both located in Philadelphia.

“It’s an incredible opportunity, and it’s just 40 minutes away,” she said.

Sherman Townsend, who has served on the DIMER board as a representative from the University of Delaware since 1989, said the program was not initially about recruitment.

“The state gives these universities funding [roughly $1.5 million annually] to reserve these spots,” Townsend said. “The state wants to see a return on its investment.”

He added that there are about 200 doctors with practices in Delaware that are former DIMER participants.

Doctors needed

Maxwell said that is a need for doctors both in Delaware and throughout the country, with primary care the area suffering the most.

“Particularly in the southern part of the state, in Kent and Sussex counties,” she said. “And when you don’t have a [state-supported] med school, it is hard to get people to think of it as a place where they would come to practice.”

Once their formal medical education is underway – typically about two years into the program – medical students generally rotate through the various departments on a two-month basis, according to Maxwell.

Under usual circumstances, Maxwell noted, those rotations could take a student to any number of hospitals or practices, adding additional travel and learning-curve time to the experience.

DIMER students, she said, get the chance to spend the entirety of their third and fourth years at either the Christiana Care Delaware Branch Campus outside Newark, Nemours/A.I. DuPont, or the Wilmington Veteran’s Administration Center.

“Some of the students come [to the Delaware Branch campus] and say, ‘Hi, I was born here,’” Maxwell said. “So it’s like they’ve come full circle. And it’s also a place where their families are treated, so they’re familiar with it already in many ways.”

The offer of full rotation in one locale is also available to students from outside Delaware, attracting students to move to here during their stay, establishing ties, and seeing the First State from a different perspective, Maxwell said.

“They start to think about Delaware in a way they hadn’t before,” she said. “They start to see it as a community they’d like to serve and be a part of.”

That opportunity was a benefit to Newark resident Taylor Russell, who first heard about DIMER while at the University of Delaware, trying to figure out the path for medical school students.

Now a third year student at PCOM and currently in her OB/GYN rotation at Christiana Hospital, Russell said being able to stay local has helped her serve her home community.

“It’s not only helped me with my path to getting into medical school, they’ve also helped me while in medical school,” she said of the DIMER program. “They have dinners and other opportunities where you can network with not only physicians but the community of Delaware.”

Serving the community

A “proud Delawarean,” Russell said that she always planned to bring her skills back home.

“I’ve always wanted to help with my community, my neighbors, and this has helped me do that,” she said, adding that while she’s open to a career path, she’s leaning towards a family practice in a more rural area.

“Not only do you get more patients, there aren’t as many doctors down that way,” she said. “So you’re helping an underserved community in that respect.”

Christiana Care media relation senior manager Hiran Ratnayake said that while the hope and the goal of DIMER is to have the students bring their practice to Delaware, it is not mandatory.

“If they want to open a practice in France, they can,” he said. “The hope is that they’ll stay here, but if they find a need elsewhere, we hope that they would take it.”

As for anyone on the fence about a medical career, Maxwell said that it’s an obvious calling for many.

“You’re sharing people’s most intimate moments, and that’s powerful,” she said. “It’s not about money – those days are over. It’s about that calling for service.”

For more information on the DIMER program, visit dhss.delaware.gov/dhcc/dimer.html.