Artist’s rendering of the $85 million medical school proposed at the University of Nebraska at Kearney (Courtesy of University of Nebraska at Kearney)
LINCOLN — If you want to increase the number of doctors, nurses and other health professionals in rural areas, you need to educate them in a rural area.
That was the message delivered Thursday by several advocates of a plan to create a rural medical school on the campus of the University of Nebraska at Kearney.
State Sen. Robert Hilkemann, who grew up on a Randolph area farm and worked as a podiatrist in Omaha, introduced a proposal to spend $60 million of the state’s $1.04 billion in federal American Rescue Plan Act funds for the University of Nebraska Medical Center Rural Health Complex.
UNMC, which is located in Omaha, has had a program at UNK since 2015 that trains nurses and allied health professionals such as physical therapists.
Legislative Bill 721 would combine $60 million in the federal recovery funds with $25 million in private or matching funds. It would expand UNK’s medical offerings to include programs in pharmacy, public health and respiratory therapy, as well as training family physicians.
A ‘severe crisis’
Doug Kristensen, UNK’s chancellor and a former state senator, said 80% to 85% of the graduates of the university’s current medical program start their careers in rural Nebraska.
“Nebraska’s rural communities face an increasingly severe crisis in maintaining access to health care for their residents,” Kristensen said.
Fourteen of the state’s 93 counties have no rural physicians, and 17 have no pharmacists, the Legislature’s Appropriations Committee was told Thursday.
Dr. Juliann Sebastian, dean of UNMC’s College of Nursing, said the pandemic has exacerbated the problem, with many workers in health fields burning out or retiring early. Twenty-one percent of the state’s nurses, she said, are approaching retirement age.
Dr. John Craig, a family physician in his hometown of Minden, said educating doctors and nurses in a rural setting like Kearney makes it more likely that they’ll practice in a rural area.
Train students in rural area
“Students can see themselves living and working in a rural area,” he said.
Hilkemann said he’s seen the opposite when working with medical interns at his Omaha podiatry office. Students from rural areas are less likely to move back to a small town once they’ve married or established connections in the big city, he said.
“It’s important that we train students where they want to practice,” he said.
Kearney State Sen. John Lowe said the new medical campus would require 40 new employees and attract more than 200 students. It would also serve to increase undergraduate enrollment, others predicted.
“There’s no bigger bill for central and western Nebraska,” Lowe saidof LB 721.
Sebastian said that the UNK program has grown steadily, from 130 students to 306 last year, and that demand would be strong if family physicians could be fully trained in Kearney.
The Appropriations Committee took no action on LB 721 after a public hearing. It was one of eight proposals by the University of Nebraska for spending $185 million in ARPA dollars.
NU President Ted Carter said the proposals were “once in a lifetime opportunities” chosen because they build on “existing strengths” of the university and because they would make the most significant, long-term impacts.
A recent economic impact study of NU, Carter said, showed a $9 return on every dollar invested by the state.
The other NU proposals were:
- LB 703, which would combine $25 million in ARPA funds and $25 million in matching private funds to build a companion building at Lincoln’s Innovation Campus for a $140 million research structure planned by the USDA. The companion structure would help entrepreneurs turn research findings from the USDA facility into “real world” products, the committee was told.
- LB 766, which would combine $15 million in ARPA funds with $15 million in private funds to create a center for excellence at UNMC to study ways to screen and cure pancreatic cancer.
- LB 904 seeks $50 million in ARPA funds to create the “Artificial Intelligence, Cybersecurity, and Holland Computer Center” at Innovation Campus.
- LB 950 asks for $10 million in ARPA monies for academic, medical research and development at the Global Center for Health Security at UNMC.
- LB 961 asks for $4 million ARPA funds for the National Counterterrorism Innovation, Technology, and Education Center to increase research at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.
- LB 962, which would appropriate $5 million in ARPA money for renovation and construction of a facility to house the Science, Technology, Engineering, Math, Teaching, Research, and Inquiry-Based Learning Center at UNO.
- LB 1054, which seeks $16 million from ARPA to modernize academic research labs and equipment for the College of Education, Health, & Human Sciences at UNO. Money would be used specifically for the Department of Biomechanics.
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