The shortage of health professionals throughout greater Minnesota is a growing crisis. A new education program started in January seems to have found a receptive audience. Meanwhile, newly-appointed U.S. Sen. Tina Smith heard from rural health leaders offering other potential solutions.

Registered nurses who have earned an associate degree in nursing will be able to complete a Bachelor of Science degree at the Minnesota State College Southeast Red Wing campus for the first time, according to the Rochester Post-Bulletin.

The program is offered through Winona State University. Jennifer Timm, assistant professor at Winona State University and co-coordinator of the RN-BSN program, told the Post-Bulletin, “Our home base is Rochester and we have a satellite campus in La Crescent. Now we have a northern campus here in Red Wing.”

“’Rural areas have a very difficult time getting nurses at any level of education,’ Timm said. ‘The Institute of Medicine recommends and encourages that 80 percent of our nurses be educated to the baccalaureate degree. That’s why RN-BS completion programs in rural settings are so important.’”

Twenty-eight students are enrolled in the Red Wing program this semester.

New U.S. Sen. Tina Smith has been appointed to serve as one of the leaders of the Senate Rural Health Caucus.  She recently met in Fergus Falls with leaders of Lake Region Healthcare and Douglas County Hospital to hear their concerns.

According to the Fergus Falls Daily Journal, rural health workforce shortages was a dominant topic.

“Kevin Kopischke, a board member for the Douglas County Hospital said through the framework of looking at the workforce, new models need to be considered.  ‘For education and health care in rural Minnesota, we really need to understand that we can’t keep doing the same things we have been in the last 50 years in the next 10,’ Kopischke said. ‘Because they will not work and we do not have the money to invest in them to make them work.’

One solution offered by Kopkischke is to rebuild “career and technical pathways in high schools, all the way down to third grade. ‘This gives young people an opportunity to look at career options early,’ Kopischke said.

Providing opportunities for young people to get involved early in health care careers was a constant theme. In addition, meeting participants proposed expansion of programs to forgive student loans for physicians and other health professionals who practice in rural communities.

Foreign-born health professionals also are a part of the solution, said meeting participants. According to the Daily Journal, Jim Stratton, county commissioner of Douglas County, told Sen. Smith that rural doctors, nurses and professional staff face a demanding schedule and get burned out.

“(Kyle Richards, CEO of Lake Region Healthcare) said with baby boomers retiring at a high rate, there is no one to replace them. Although he is concerned about workforce shortages, he mentioned another possible route to look for employees.

“’We have a number of foreign-born individuals coming into the U.S. filling the gap by providers or other skilled workers,” Richards said. “So, when we talk about the Dreamers and those types of things, they can fill the gap. If they are a productive member of society, I think we need to take a look at that. We are struggling as a society to find workers to fill the skilled workforce.’”