Rio partnership ‘reignited passion for public health’

Tia Dorshorst grew up with pagers in her family’s truck and house and spent several Christmas holidays waiting to open gifts while her dad responded to emergency calls.

Dorshorst’s familiarity with the emergency services field motivated her to work with the village of Rio on challenges related to emergency medical technicians during Fall 2022 as a first-year master of public health student (MPH) in the University of Wisconsin–Madison’s School of Medicine and Public Health.

Tia Dorshorst

“That’s why I chose the project,” she said. “I have that connection personally.”

In the Public Health 780: Evidence-Based Decision-Making class taught by Jess Link Reeve, she worked with two other students pursuing master of public health degrees, Michael Elbing and Stuart Berry, who both have their own personal connections to medical services. Elbing is a certified EMT and worked in the Madison area prior to starting the MPH program. Berry, a former Navy Medical Officer, is a first year preventive medicine resident. 

“I wanted to get into public health to go upstream and help people before they got sick or prevent them from being sick,” said Berry.

Dorshorst and Elbing plan to attend medical and physician assistant schools, respectively, but chose the MPH program to enhance their future degrees.

Michael Elbing

“I knew that there’s a lot that goes into medicine, other than the medicine itself,” Elbing said. “I want to take this with me and focus upstream when I talk to future patients.” 

They were connected to Rio through Columbia County’s partnership with the three-year UniverCity Year (UCY) partnership. UCY is the hallmark program of UniverCity Alliance (UCA), which connects Wisconsin local governments with university resources to work on community-identified challenges.  

In addition to the MPH students, Rio also worked with Civil & Environmental Engineering 578: Senior Capstone Design students taught by Jan Kucher and Mark Oleinik on improving Rio’s fire station. Fire Department Chief John Butterbaugh’s preferred design option included remodeling the existing building and added space for EMS services.

“It’s great to bring someone in from the outside, look at it with fresh eyes and kind of open the box and say, ‘Well, what about that, or what about this?’” Butterbaugh said. “They were all very professional, very easy to communicate with. Overall, I’d say it was a very positive experience.”

Butterbaugh has taken the reports created in both classes to the Rio Fire Association to spur a discussion on how to provide better service in the community. The association agreed to support a grant writer, and Butterbaugh has submitted an application for congressionally directed spending through U.S. Senator Tammy Baldwin’s office to cover the cost of the remodel and construction project.

EMS program in schools among recommended solutions

Like many communities in Wisconsin, recruiting and retaining EMS workers is challenging in Rio. Low pay, high stress, and a lack of job satisfaction contribute to declining membership. The decline in EMT professionals has especially been pronounced in rural communities that offer volunteer EMS services.  

“We have a small group of committed EMTs that continue to carry a large burden of hours without new members joining,” said Amy Stone, who is an EMT and the village’s clerk and treasurer.  

During the semester, the students visited Rio and participated in a brainstorming session. 

“The team went above and beyond to listen to their partners,” Link Reeve said. “It was great to see them dive into a project that many rural EMS agencies are facing and find meaningful and innovative ways to impact the community.”

Stuart Berry

Visiting the community in person helped the group “get a grasp of what the community looked like,” Dorshorst said. After that visit, Berry felt like the partnership “turned a corner” in terms of their understanding of EMS in Rio. 

“We told them, ‘We’re outsiders. We don’t really know how your department works,’” Berry said. “But we just asked a lot of hard questions about their policies and their procedures and their culture.” 

Those questions and discussion ultimately led to the students recommending three solutions

  • Creating core values, mission statement, policies and procedures
  • Implementing a high school mentorship program and mentorship program within the department 
  • Engaging in community outreach, especially in the schools

As a result, Rio met with the local high school to discuss an opportunity to offer an EMS class to students with the goal of creating a future viable candidate pool. 

“We are in the process of rolling out the program with the hopes that it will be ready for the fall semester,” Stone said.  

During the project, the students provided input for a new EMT director job description during a staffing transition. Butterbaugh said a recently hired medical director is moving forward with rewriting administrative policies and procedures. 

Rio ‘reignited passion for public health’

Working with Rio as first semester MPH students solidified how Dorshorst, Elbing, and Berry can support communities in the area of public health when they have completed their degree.

“It got me excited. It made me see how impactful public health can be,” Dorshorst said. 

Likewise, Elbing reflected on starting at the beginning of the semester knowing little about Rio to “helping out a community.”

“We accomplished what we wanted to, and we helped people out,” Elbing said. “Hopefully it keeps us going.” 

Berry’s takeaway was witnessing the importance of meeting the community partners in Rio. 

“I don’t think we would have accomplished what we had if we hadn’t at least visited,” Berry said. “It was just very rewarding to see even – before the end before our final presentation – that they were implementing some of our recommendations.

“The entire experience reignited my passion for public health,” Berry said. 

–Abigail Becker