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 campus in 50 years.
The school would be in St. Cloud and have a 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 campus — a partnership between the U and St. Cloud-based CentraCare — could open as soon as 2025.
"There are very few new medical schools created, so this is a remarkable once-in-a-life opportunity for not only our organizations but our communities," said Dr. Ken Holmen, president and chief executive of CentraCare, in a recent interview.
The goal is to make a dent in the rural physician shortage that's estimated to grow to 80,000 physicians nationally by 2030. The disparity causes rural patients to face longer wait times, travel farther to access care and experience poorer health outcomes than their urban counterparts.
"This is an enormous problem," said Dr. Jakub Tolar, dean of the U's medical school, who introduced preliminary plans for the St. Cloud campus at the Board of Regents meeting in December. "We want to do something about this. 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 learn in rural areas, they often become integrated into the communities and choose to stay after completing training. That logic has proven successful with previous partnerships, including rural training programs where students complete rotations in outstate facilities, including at CentraCare.
The U and CentraCare have also partnered on a family practice residency program for more than two decades — and that program will soon expand to Willmar.
But numbers are still bleak: A 2022 report from the Minnesota Department of Health revealed 1 in 5 rural health providers — including 1 in 3 rural physicians — said they plan to leave their profession in the next five years. Some of the anticipated decline is due to burnout that was exacerbated during the pandemic. But the growing shortage has also been on health leaders' radar for decades as rural physicians of the baby boomer generation retire.
"There's not a younger population of physicians who are going to 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 the rural physician shortage.
Tolar and Holmen plan to return to the Board of Regents in February to share more project details, including cost estimates, and ask the board to approve a statement of interest on the project. Board members already seem keen on the new campus.
Doug Huebsch, a Perham farmer and board member, said the project is imperative to rural communities, where a 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 medicine out there," Huebsch said at the December meeting.
Dr. Ruth Johnson, board member and physician at Mayo Clinic, agreed.
"We need to be where we're needed," Johnson said.
While the new campus should help address rural health disparities, health leaders understand it's only a start at addressing the problem.
"There is not a way that you can provide enough physicians to rural Minnesota to keep up with the demand currently," Tolar said in a recent interview.
Because of this, 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 this," Tolar said. "You cannot catch up with the demand the way we are doing it now."