CentraCare seeks partnership with U of M for rural medical school

People stand at the entrance to a hospital.
People enter the main Sauk Centre Hospital entrance. CentraCare wants to partner with the University of Minnesota to establish another medical school in the state focused on rural medical care.
Kirsti Marohn | MPR News 2020

Amid talks of a Fairview Health Services and Sanford Health merger, another major health care provider — St. Cloud-based CentraCare — wants to partner with the University of Minnesota to establish another medical school in the state.

CentraCare CEO Dr. Kenneth Holmen speaks about the need for a rural medical school on Morning Edition.

The following is a transcript of the conversation edited for clarity. Listen to the full conversation using the audio player above.

Why is a medical school needed in central Minnesota?

I think the why for University of Minnesota and CentraCare is quite compelling.

First off, start with the workforce. We're all cognizant of the workforce challenges. Whether it's a physician, nurse in many of our support roles, medical technology, pharmacy, respiratory — we have a significant workforce shortage. And it's worse in rural areas, as our population has moved to more urban areas in the last number of years. So certainly, workforce is a driving mode of a statistic.

When I went to the University of Minnesota Medical School in 1978, there were 4 million residents in the state of Minnesota. And there were roughly 300 medical students between the University of Minnesota Duluth, Mayo and the main campus in Minneapolis. Fast forward to 2023, and the population of Minnesota is roughly 5.7 million, and the medical school [students] that are graduated is still the same. In other words, we've increased our population by a third, and the number of physicians being trained every year is the same.

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And we face a retirement crisis. One in three Minnesota physicians will retire in the next five years. So how do we replace a desperately needed workforce, particularly in rural Minnesota and actually rural America?

Is it a given that those newly-minted doctors will stay in the area after graduation, considering rural doctors earn less than their urban counterparts?

The data is quite clear on this: If individuals are trained in rural settings, they have a clear propensity to stay in rural settings. That doesn't mean that they are expected to or that they sign a piece of paper to, but they find the values of the communities that they train in to be worth spending their entire life on. Folks that train in rural institutions stay rural.

The second is that it sometimes is a misnomer to believe that folks in rural institutions are paid less than those in metro [areas]. Depending on the specialty, some [rural doctors] are paid more because there's a shortage of them. Pay is a concern. We want to pay fairly. But the cost of living in some rural environments may be less than in the metro.

Housing, for example, might be less than in a more rural environment; fuel might be a little bit more. But all in all, we believe that by training in rural institutions, we will have a much better opportunity to train more folks who will want to stay in our geography.

With the U entangled in the Sanford-Fairview merger, how does that potentially affect this proposal?

It's important because when issues like this arise, they need to be worked through thoughtfully and appropriately. But it's not detracting from us at all. The University of Minnesota Medical School is not a part of the Sanford transaction. It is part and parcel of the University of Minnesota's academic mission. The University of Minnesota will continue to spread its academic wings in medicine, and we are delighted with the conversation with the University of Minnesota.

Any idea when this school, if it's approved, might open?

It's actually a phased approach. We anticipate perhaps a first-year class in 2025. A medical school is a four-year program, so it would continue to grow each year. Additionally, we intend to expand our residency programs. This is post-M.D. training, in specialties like family practice, obstetrics and gynecology, mental health, pediatrics and general surgery.

These are all folks that we desperately need to replace our workforce and improve the health of our communities. We look to collaborate with the University of Minnesota, St. Cloud State University, St. Cloud Tech, St. John's and Saint Vincent’s to improve all the educational outcomes for all the other team members.