ST. CLOUD – The University of Minnesota and central Minnesota’s largest healthcare provider are teaming up to open the state’s first new medical school in 50 years.
The school would be in St. Cloud and focus on rural health, similar to the U’s Duluth campus which opened in 1972 with a focus on rural and Native American health. If approved by U’s board of trustees, the school — a partnership between U and St. Cloud-based CentraCare — could open as early as 2025.
“There are very few new medical schools being created, so this is a remarkable, unique opportunity not only for our organizations but also for our communities,” said Ken Holmen, president and CEO of CentraCare, in a statement. recent interview.
The goal is to reduce the shortage of rural doctors which is expected to reach 80,000 doctors nationwide by 2030. This disparity forces rural patients to face longer wait times, travel farther for access care and have poorer health outcomes than their urban counterparts.
“It’s a huge problem,” said Dr. Jakub Tolar, dean of the U medical school, who presented preliminary plans for the St. Cloud campus at the Board of Regents meeting in December. “We want to do something about it. And it’s embarrassingly simple: if you want to have health care in rural Minnesota, you have to have doctors and clinical teams in rural Minnesota.”
When students live and study in rural areas, they often integrate into communities and choose to stay there after completing their education. This logic has proven successful with previous partnerships, including rural training programs where students rotate to outside institutions, including CentraCare.
The U and CentraCare have also partnered on a family medicine residency program for more than two decades – and that program will soon expand to Willmar.
But the numbers are still grim: A 2022 report from the Minnesota Department of Health found that 1 in 5 rural health care providers — including 1 in 3 rural physicians — said they planned to leave their profession in over the next five years. Part of the expected decline is due to the burnout that has been exacerbated during the pandemic. But the growing shortage has also been on the radar of health leaders for decades as rural doctors of the baby boomer generation retire.
“There’s not a younger population of physicians that’s going to replace these retiring physicians,” Holmen said.
It is proposed that the St. Cloud campus will accommodate between 20 and 24 students each year, as well as expanded residency programs in areas such as mental health, pediatrics and general surgery – all areas affected by the shortage of rural doctors.
Tolar and Holmen plan to return to the Board of Regents in February to share more details about the project, including cost estimates, and ask the board to approve an Expression of Interest on the project. Council members already seem interested in the new school.
Doug Huebsch, a Perham farmer and board member, said the project is imperative for rural communities, where lack of health care often limits potential economic and residential growth.
“We’re not going to have those jobs in rural areas if we don’t have the drugs there,” Huebsch said at the December meeting.
Mayo Clinic board member and physician Dr. Ruth Johnson agreed.
“We have to be where we are needed,” Johnson said.
While the new campus is expected to help address rural health disparities, health officials understand it’s only the beginning of solving the problem.
“There’s no way to supply rural Minnesota with enough doctors to meet the demand,” Tolar said in a recent interview.
For this reason, U leaders are working on a comprehensive approach that will improve access by providing virtual health networks and using existing technologies such as smartwatches that can provide real-time health data to doctors.
“You have to be smarter than that,” Tolar said. “You can’t catch up with demand.”
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