University of Minnesota, CentraCare plans St. Cloud medical school to focus on rural health

ST. CLOUD – The University of Minnesota and Central Minnesota’s largest health care 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 that opened in 1972 with a focus on rural and Native American health. If approved by the U’s Board of Regents, the school — a partnership between the U and St. Cloud-based CentraCare — could open as early as 2025.

“Very few new medical schools have been created, so this is a tremendous once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for not only our organizations but also our communities,” said Ken Holmen, president and chief executive officer of CentraCare, in a recent interview.

The goal is to dent the rural physician shortage that is estimated to grow to 80,000 physicians nationwide by 2030. The disparity means that rural patients face longer wait times, travel farther to access treatment, and experience worse health outcomes than their urban counterparts.

“This is a huge problem,” said Dr. Jakub Tolar, dean of the US University 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 healthcare in rural Minnesota, you have to have doctors and clinical teams in rural Minnesota.”

When students live and learn in rural areas, they often integrate into communities and choose to stay on after completing their training. This rationale has proven successful with previous partnerships, including rural education programs where students complete rotations at out-of-state facilities, including CentraCare.

The U and CentraCare have also partnered on a family studies residency program for more than two decades, and that program will soon expand to Willmar.

But the numbers are still bleak: A 2022 report from the Minnesota Department of Health revealed that 1 in 5 rural health care workers, including 1 in 3 rural doctors, said they plan to leave the profession in the next five years. Part of the expected decline is due to burnout which has been exacerbated during the pandemic. But the growing shortage has also been on the radar of healthcare leaders for decades as rural doctors of the baby boomer generation retire.

“There isn’t a younger population of physicians that will replace those retiring physicians,” Holmen said.

The St. Cloud campus is proposed to have 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 rural physician shortages.

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 a declaration of interest on the project. Board members already seem enthusiastic about the new school.

Doug Huebsch, a Perham farmer and council member, said the project was indispensable for rural communities, where lack of healthcare often limits potential economic and residential growth.

“We’re not going to get those jobs in rural areas if we don’t have medicine out there,” Huebsch said at the December meeting.

Dr. Ruth Johnson, a Mayo Clinic board member and physician, agrees.

“We have to be where we are needed,” Johnson said.

While the new campus is expected to help address rural health disparities, health leaders understand it is only the beginning of addressing the problem.

“There is no way we can provide enough doctors in rural Minnesota to keep up with 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 technology such as people’s smartwatches that can provide real-time health data to doctors.

“You have to be smarter than that,” Tolar said. “You can’t meet the demand.”

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