Rural health care shortages revisited

A new bill offers loan forgiveness to students working in rural Minnesota.

Christopher Aadland

Andrea Westby, a physician in rural Minnesota, said recent staffing shortages at a clinic she works at forced some patients to travel to a different hospital 45 minutes away.

Personnel shortages and a growing baby boomer population are overwhelming health care facilities in greater Minnesota, leaving lawmakers and school officials searching for new ways to attract students to the underserved areas.

Westby, a University of Minnesota alumna, practices family medicine at various clinics in the northwestern Minnesota area, and she said students may not feel inclined to work in low-population areas.

“People are afraid of living in a small town and afraid of not having access to some of the amenities you get used to living in a big city,” she said.

The number of physicians, mental health workers and dentists in rural areas are projected to decrease in the coming years.

Kris Olson, vice president of Physician and Professional Services at Essentia Health, said if the problem is left unsolved, the shortage could bring unwanted consequences for health care workers and patients.

“The consequences of us not being able to [hire] somebody puts a lot of people at risk,” she said.

Dr. Michele Thieman, a University alumna and physician at Essentia Health’s Walker Clinic, said staffing shortages have forced the hospital to prioritize which patients it sees.

A 2012 study by the Minnesota Department of Health found that more than half of the state’s physicians and nurse practitioners were at least 45 years old and close to retirement.

The same report stated that 17 percent of the state’s population lived in rural areas, but only 11 percent of Minnesota’s primary care physicians worked in those communities.

Since the start of this year’s legislative session, lawmakers have placed an emphasis on serving communities in greater Minnesota.

Sen. Greg Clausen, DFL-Apple Valley, introduced a bill earlier this month to offer loan forgiveness to students who plan to work in rural areas in the state.

 The bill would expand an existing loan forgiveness program administered by the Minnesota Department of Health that has seen its funding shrink in recent years.

Currently, Clausen said, the program only supports about 70 professionals during a four-year cycle. He said he’d like to see an additional 200 people added to the program while expanding the number of careers it supports.

The University has also recognized the diminishing number of health professionals in rural Minnesota and its effects. The school’s 2016-17 biennial budget request, which the state Legislature will discuss throughout the session, includes an initiative to minimize the impact of health care shortages.

The $34.5 million request, however, was not met by Gov. Mark Dayton in his budget proposal released Tuesday.

Clausen said he plans to introduce another bill this session that would increase the number of residencies available to medical students and offer additional incentives to those who mentor students entering health professions.