Even before the coronavirus pandemic exacerbated the situation beginning in 2020, Nebraska was projecting a shortage of health care professionals, particularly in rural areas.
The University of Nebraska Medical Center has long expected a shortage of 5,435 nurses by 2025, which combined with an aging population will seriously squeeze health care options in several areas of the state.
Shortages were also expected in other specialties — primary care physicians, pediatric physicians, OBGYNs, audiologists — even before COVID strained the health care system.
While the statistics are sobering, UNMC Chancellor Jeffrey Gold told the NU Board of Regents Thursday that the university has a plan to build a sustainable workforce that will be key to ensuring patients across Nebraska can see a doctor or will have adequate numbers of nurses available.
And regents agreed with the plan, unanimously approving spending $50 million appropriated by the Legislature to expand the Rural Health Education Building at the University of Nebraska at Kearney to train a new generation of providers.
“Only the university can do this,” Gold said Thursday.
UNK Chancellor Doug Kristensen said the $85 million expansion — the university will raise $35 million in private funds to build out the full project — will play a lead role in keeping rural Nebraska vibrant for years to come.
“(Health care) is the future of all these communities,” Kristensen said. “We should do things that only the university can solve. There’s no one else in the state of Nebraska who can do this.”
NU initially asked the state to fund $60 million of the project. The Legislature ultimately included $50 million for it in its rescue plan package earlier this year, and Gov. Pete Ricketts signed the bill into law.
With the state funding in place — the amount raised from donors will determine the final scale of the project — officials expect to break ground on the project in September 2023. It will be adjacent to an existing Rural Health Building that opened in 2015.
That facility was the focus of the Building a Healthier Nebraska Initiative, a 2012 partnership between NU, the Legislature, and then-Gov. Dave Heineman to address the anticipated shortage of nurses and other health care specialties in the state.
The $19 million building, which provides high-tech space for UNMC’s College of Nursing and College of Allied Health Professionals to train health care workers in a rural campus setting, was considered phase one.
The new $85 million expansion, which will expand the previous offerings while also adding programs for physicians, pharmacists and public health professionals, will be phase two, according to the university.
Gold, in a presentation to regents, said the need to move forward on the proposed center was urgent.
According to the Status of the Nebraska Health Care Workforce, a document showing the number of health care providers across several specialties that is updated every two years, 14 of the state’s 93 counties were without a primary care physician.
Only 19 counties had an internal medicine physician in 2020; seven counties have a pediatric primary care physician; and just 38 counties have a licensed OBGYN, the UNMC study found.
Even in the counties where health care professionals are currently practicing, including the urban areas, the number of providers per 100,000 residents often falls short of the national average, Gold said.
Nebraska is also moving in the wrong direction, Gold added. A piece of clip art on a slide he showed to regents showed a car on a road that stops at a cliff side.
“I’d like to think we are proceeding full steam ahead away from the cliff,” Gold said. “But unfortunately, over time, that has not been the trend.”
Regent Tim Clare of Lincoln said the opening of the rural health care education complex in Kearney had already contributed to putting more providers in areas of Nebraska that previously didn’t have one.
He said the program should continue to be a focus for NU.
“If we’re going to grow our state, health care has to be at the top,” Clare said. “Health care, broadband (internet), you have to have it in these counties. If you don’t, these counties are going to die.”
And Regent Elizabeth O’Connor of Omaha, who also spoke in support of the project, said she routinely hears a lack of access to health care is the top concern for many Nebraskans.
“I think it creates a lot of dread for Nebraskans in the future,” O’Connor said, adding that expanding programming designed to train doctors and nurses to work in rural areas was the right thing to do.
“It demonstrates our commitment of giving back to the state,” she said. “That commitment is at the core of what makes our university great.”
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A proposed $85 million UNK-UNMC Rural Health Complex in Kearney would be aimed at creating an attractive school in a rural part of the state and connecting students with internships and clinicals in rural areas to help address health care worker shortages.