U aims to compensate for rural health professional shortage

University Academic Health Center provides health-service training in under-served areas.

Ahnalese Rushmann

As more health professionals retire, the University is working to avoid a future workforce shortage crisis.

Since 2002, the University’s Academic Health Center has worked in under-served, rural parts of the state by establishing Area Health Education Centers in Hibbing and Willmar, with sites in Fergus Falls and Crookston in the works.

The centers work with communities to increase the health-professional workforce and contribute to local economies. It is part of a national program that began in 1970.

The program has facilitated clinical training, internships and other activities for more than 1,000 health-professions students and provided continuing education services for nearly 3,000 people.

Barbara Brandt, director of the Minnesota AHECs, said the workforce shortage is not a new problem.

“We’ve had this need for 30 years,” she said.

Regents will vote whether the Fergus Falls center should incorporate and form a nonprofit next month, which Brandt said is a necessary step to get the center running.

She said the centers, which don’t provide direct patient care, place students with practitioners to advance their health-profession educations, which can range from medicine and nursing to pharmacy and dentistry.

Brendan Ashby, executive director of the Northeast Minnesota AHEC in Hibbing, said the centers encourage people from rural areas to return to their hometowns to practice, but don’t exclude anybody from participating.

“Even if a student has a cursory interest, I would certainly invite them to come out and have a rural-rotation experience,” he said.

Ashby said he figures the compensation in an urban area and a rural area is balanced by the lower cost of living in rural areas.

“It’s basically a wash,” he said.

Luke Beckman, a second-year medical student, said he considered a future practicing medicine in a rural area but decided against it when taking his personal life into consideration.

His future spouse might have difficulty finding a job in a rural area, he said, adding that most of his family lives in or near the Twin Cities.

Beckman said his brother Eric, a fourth-year dentistry student, did rotations in Hibbing and enjoyed his experience.

Despite little interest in the AHEC programs, he said it’s wise to teach students medical practices outside of the city.

“It has a really good purpose,” said Beckman, who wants to practice family medicine. “We don’t get a good sense of how things are handled further away.”

Jessica Bedi, a neuroscience junior, said she hopes to be a surgeon one day.

“What’s cool about rural communities is that when you’re the general surgeon, you get all the surgeries,” she said. “If you’re into general surgery, it’s definitely your cup of tea.”

Despite the pros of working in a rural area, such as closer relationships with patients, Bedi said she’d prefer to stay in the city.

It doesn’t seem like there’s a problem with doctor shortages, it just appears that way as older professionals retire, she said.

Bedi said she’s met many University students who intend to return to their rural hometowns to practice.

Ashby said that at first, some students at the centers want to leave and go back to an urban setting. But others stick it out and are surprised by the sophistication of the health-care systems in the area, he said.

“They might change their mind,” Ashby said. “They might find this is a place they want to live.”