Despite U of M’s efforts, primary care in critical condition


The new federal health care reform means more Minnesotans will have affordable access to doctors, physician assistants and other medical providers. Here’s the dilemma, these types of primary care providers, which are critical to keeping costs down and increasing overall health, are already stretched thin, especially in rural Minnesota.

Here’s the good news: The University of Minnesota, arguably the biggest single provider of health care professionals in our state, has undergone substantial growth in the past few years and now has one of the largest medical schools in the country. Mary Koppel, assistant vice president for public affairs at the Academic Health Center Office of Communications, says the U of M now graduates 220-230 medical doctors every year.  In addition to the medical school expansion, the university has also opened a pharmacy school in Duluth, effectively increasing that class by 50%, and the school of dentistry has developed a dental therapist degree program in an attempt to meet the high need for dental care providers in the state. And of course, there are nurse practitioners who can perform many of the same tasks as physicians, bridging the provider gap.

However, these efforts – although enormously beneficial to Minnesota – might not be sustainable, as the university has been subject to enormous state funding cuts. In response, tuition has risen, making a career as a primary care doctor – which pays less than specialty care – less attractive.  The other major drawback to large cuts, Koppel explains, is that it limits the university’s ability to recruit and retain quality faculty and offer competitive salaries.

Like K-12 eduction, investing in colleges and graduate programs is critical to our state’s economic and medical health. The University of Minnesota and other state institutions of higher learning have done their part anticipating and responding to the growing demand for primary care health providers, yet the governor and legislature have done little to support those efforts economically.  Fewer doctors and nurses mean longer lines at clinics, limiting access to care and forcing people to put off treatment while their health deteriorates.  All of this completely undermines federal efforts to increase access and lower long-term  medical costs. You can buy the penicillin today or pay for  surgery a year from now. As a patient, I’d rather have the penicillin today.