Billings Clinic announces first surgical residency in Montana

Program would partner with the University of Arizona-Phoenix to train rural surgeons

By: - January 13, 2022 12:19 pm

The entrance to the Billings Clinic Commons in Billings (Photo by Darrell Ehrlick of the Daily Montanan).

Billings Clinic, the state’s largest healthcare provider, has announced that it is partnering with the University of Arizona-Phoenix to create a residency program to train surgeons, with an emphasis on surgery in rural and underserved areas.

The first three surgical residents will begin in June, and it adds to other residencies in Billings, including family medicine, internal medicine and psychiatry. There’s also a Western Family Medicine Residency based in Missoula to train physicians through a collaboration with the University of Washington, which trains medical students from Washington, Wyoming, Alaska, Montana and Idaho, commonly referred to as “WWAMI.”

In its announcement Thursday, Billings Clinic said the reason for creating this residency partnership was because of the shortage of surgeons, especially in rural areas of the country, like Montana and Wyoming. For example, more than half of the surgeons currently in the state are more than 60 years old. Also, three-quarters of all surgeons live in the seven most populated cities in the state, which represents just one-third of the Montana population, the Clinic said.

Fourth-year residents will spend a year training at Billings Clinic, focusing on trauma and general surgery, with training in subspecialties such as neurosurgery, urology, orthopedics and obstetrics and gynecology. They’ll also have the chance to serve at rural, critical access hospitals.

“This is the first program of its kind in Montana, and we are thrilled to offer this opportunity for resident physicians to gain critical training that will help them succeed in meeting the needs of rural communities,” said Dr. Gordon Riha, Billings Clinic trauma surgeon. “This creates a broad, outstanding educational opportunity while helping surgeons who want to practice in rural areas. It enhances existing services and education, bolsters critical access hospital capabilities and introduces new surgeons to our amazing communities.”

The Clinic is hoping that by training surgeons specifically for rural practice that it will help recruit doctors to underserved critical-access hospitals, equipping them with the skills they need to be successful in smaller settings and keeping patients closer to home.

“We want to expose residents to a multitude of surgical and critical care training in the state of Montana so that they have the breadth of experience that a true general surgeon needs,” said Billings Clinic chief executive Dr. Scott Ellner, who is also a trained general surgeon. “This rotation will give them confidence in caring for patients coming from a rural or frontier setting, and it will bring an important resource to the communities we serve.”

A study indicated that between 2010 and 2019, Montana retained 63 percent of the medical residents trained in the state, 10 percent higher than the national average, the Clinic said.

Billings Clinic also offers nursing and pharmacy residency programs.

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Darrell Ehrlick
Darrell Ehrlick

Darrell Ehrlick is the editor-in-chief of the Daily Montanan, after leading his native state’s largest paper, The Billings Gazette. He is an award-winning journalist, author, historian and teacher, whose career has taken him to North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Utah, and Wyoming. With Darrell at the helm, the Gazette staff took Montana’s top newspaper award six times in seven years. Darrell's books include writing the historical chapters of “Billings Memories” Volumes I-III, and “It Happened in Minnesota.” He has taught journalism at Winona State University and Montana State University-Billings, and has served on the student publications board of the University of Wyoming.