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CentraCare, U of M share plans to attract more doctors to rural communities

The American Medical Association says the country could be short anywhere from 35,000 to 125,000 doctors, which hits rural areas particularly hard.

ST. CLOUD, Minn. — When it comes to health care in rural communities, in some cases, people are having to wait months just to get in for things like physicals, while some have to travel miles to see a specialist. 

The American Medical Association says the country could be short anywhere from 35,000 to 125,000 doctors, which hits rural areas particularly hard.

But a new medical school in Minnesota is hoping to change that. 

In towns like Sauk Centre, where Dr. Jamie Hammerbeck is a rural-area doctor with CentraCare, is witnessing the impacts firsthand. 

"I'm spread out in a lot of different ways," he said. "I work in the clinic, I also work in the ER, I also work in the hospital...I deliver babies." 

"Some communities have to of course restrict access to certain specialty procedures, obstetrics. Having babies is one example, surgeries is another," said Dr. Ken Holmen, president and CEO of CentraCare. 

The shortage of rural-area physicians is expected to grow by 80,000 nationally over the next seven years. 

Those startling statistics are driving the launch of a brand-new medical school in Minnesota for the first time in 50 years.

"If we create a rural educational environment, the folks that are educated there are much more likely to practice there and make a life there," said Dr. Holmen.

CentraCare is a health care system based in St. Cloud, Minnesota that has plans in the works to partner with the University of Minnesota's Medical school to expand education and training, placing med students in the heart of rural Minnesota with three major goals. 

"More physicians, more nurses, improve the health of our citizens and invest in our communities," said Dr. Holmen. 

Investments that Dr. Hammerbeck hopes will pay off long-term. 

"Some day, I'm going to want to retire and so having a resource like that available not only to, you know, train rural doctors but then hopefully they want to work in rural areas — that's the whole goal," said Dr. Hammerbeck. 

When asked why she thinks there's such a great need for more rural doctors, Dr. Hammberbeck replied, "Because it's hard. Because there aren't enough people, so if we have more people, that'll make the job more doable, more sustainable."

"This will grow over time, but we're very excited this is a remarkable opportunity for central Minnesota, rural Minnesota at-large, to achieve those three objectives," said Dr. Holman. 

The University of Minnesota released the following statement from Jakub Tolar, dean of the U's Medical School and vice president for clinical affairs, regarding the planned expansion: 

“We are excited to have this opportunity to deepen our existing relationship with CentraCare. The Medical School is committed to working with any health system in the State who wants to educate more of our students and residents. CentraCare has been a partner for more than 20 years in the education of physicians, pharmacists, and more recently, advanced practice nurses. In the past year, we've been working with them to address Greater Minnesota's need for more physicians and broader access to high-quality healthcare. And based on the success of our programs in Duluth, we're looking forward to expanding our ability to provide excellent education and training opportunities with CentraCare for more future physicians."

The University's Board of Regents will vote in February on whether or not to approve the new plan, and if approved, the first class of med students is expected to start in two years. 

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