Advancing rural health improves all Nebraska

By Douglas A. Kristensen and Jeffrey P. Gold

Our state’s rural areas have much to be proud of: low crime rate, outstanding community pride and neighbors willing to lend a hand are just a few.  But it’s no secret that collectively, Nebraskans have watched our rural populations decline over the decades. With those decreases, we lose resources, services and schools, leaving communities disadvantaged in their fight for sustainability. Those of us who are also working hard to support economic development know how tough it has become to retain and recruit businesses and a dynamic workforce to rural communities.

Doug Kristensen, UNK Chancellor
Doug Kristensen, UNK Chancellor
Jeffrey Gold, UNMC Chancellor

A fundamental community need is health care, but 14 of Nebraska’s counties don’t have a primary care physician. Shortages in all medical professions, including critically important mental health services, make it difficult to access health care, and people in rural communities end up sending their health care dollars to larger populations centers, further hurting local economies. The need has never been more clear: We must increase access to health care workforce pipelines in rural Nebraska to improve quality of life for all our residents, and to support economic sustainability.

The University of Nebraska at Kearney and University of Nebraska Medical Center have succeeded in making health care education more accessible to students from rural Nebraska, including the Building a Healthier Nebraska programs in 2011. We know that students are more likely to start their careers in the location they complete their education, and the Nebraska Legislature has supported projects to that end, including the Health Science Education Complex at UNK in 2015 and UNMC’s Rural Health Opportunities Program. If we want health professionals to serve in rural Nebraska, we have to educate and train them in rural Nebraska, and UNK has proven success with students in our pre-health education programs that lead to UNMC health profession degrees.

Now, we are proposing that the State of Nebraska invest American Rescue Plan funding to create a second health care workforce training facility on the UNK campus. When we opened the Health Science Education Complex in Kearney, it quickly filled to capacity with nursing, medical lab science and occupational therapy students. With this funding and the equally important ongoing program support from the state, we will grow the current programs and work to add education in medicine, medical nutrition, respiratory care, public health and more. These professions are in demand throughout rural Nebraska, but the workforce just isn’t there and the future pipeline is grim.

Under the revamped Building a Healthier Nebraska program, newly created scholarships will draw students from rural communities. Young people in these communities will be supported in their interests in health care, because they are the people most likely to fill the critically needed jobs in rural Nebraska in the future. Students will get a top-quality science education at UNK, and transition smoothly into world-class medical and health profession education through UNMC, right in central Nebraska.

This will increase the quality of health care in these communities and make it easier for the people in rural Nebraska to get their health care closer to home. In addition, health care workers will bring a significant economic impact to their local communities:  Annually, each physician assistant creates a $250,000 impact on the economy, each advanced practice RN creates a $250,000 impact, and each physician creates $1.3 million in local economic activity. Our data from the first HSEC building project shows that 86% of students stay in the state to practice and set down their roots.

Most importantly, these health professionals will deliver exceptional care that will save lives.

The UNK-UNMC partnership will have a regional reach, given the focus on rural health care.  The professional setting for hospitals and clinics is different in rural areas, and so the focus will appeal to people in the surrounding states seeking specialized training in rural health care. This is good for them, and it’s great for Nebraska. The federal ARPA funds and sustainable state program support offer an opportunity to invest in Nebraska’s long-term well-being, and we have the right partnership to have a meaningful impact on the state.

Douglas Kristensen is Chancellor of the University of Nebraska at Kearney
Jeffrey Gold is Chancellor of the University of Nebraska Medical Center