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Published October 06, 2011, 12:00 AM

RRV: Health care systems ‘creatively’ finding professionals

Health care systems in the Red River Valley are not finding it easy to recruit health care professionals, but are not letting that deter them from providing good service for those in the region.

By: Alan Van Ormer, Prairie Business Magazine

Joel Rotvold, Executive Physician Recruiter for Altru Health System in Grand Forks, ND, says for the past 15-20 years it has been tough recruiting medical professionals to the Midwest. “It certainly hasn’t gotten any easier,” he states.

He has found that primary care physicians are the toughest group to recruit because of the immense opportunities in the region. “I don’t think we are producing enough primary care physicians,” he states. “There is more specialty care in the United States and we are seeing a shortage of primary care physicians in rural areas.”

Lake Region Healthcare CEO Larry Schulz is seeing physicians retiring that have been working for 35 years. “The hardest thing now to recruit in some ways is primary care especially internal medicine and pediatrics,” he states. “Fewer people are going into primary care.”

Schulz believes that ongoing recruitment of primary care physicians is a concern. Lake Region Healthcare has dealt with the issue by going to a Hospitalist program to help physicians they don’t have to be on call and integrating the hospital and Fergus Falls Medical Group to form Lake Region Healthcare.

“This provided us opportunity to recruit additional physicians,” he states. “There is a fairly significant start up cost when adding physicians. We were able to help meet those financial needs.”

One barrier to recruitment is location. “When people look on the map and they see you are from west central Minnesota, they are thinking ‘North Pole’,” Schulz says. “What we find is that once we get them here to look, we are pretty successful in recruiting. A job for a spouse might be a secondary factor.”

What is also making it more difficult is that there are more baby boomers seeking medical attention. In addition, it is estimated that 75 million baby boomers will be retiring across the nation in the next few years. It is also estimated that 46 million people fit into the ‘X’ generation category, meaning there aren’t enough to fill health care needs. This also means that health care facilities, like Altru, will have to dip into the ‘Y’ generation to supplement the number of health care professionals as they retire.

The federal government is placing an emphasis on education in the mid-level areas (people such as physician assistants), but Rotvold states there needs to be more mid-level providers in primary care. “There aren’t going to be enough to meet the demands,” he states.

Lake Region Healthcare in Fergus Falls, MN, is one health care system that has had some success in bringing in health care professionals. In the last 18 months, the system has increased its medical staff from 46 to a total of 70 by the end of 2011.

“We’ve been able to recruit other medical professions – like physical therapy, nursing, and lab technicians – that are difficult because of our training program,” Schulz states.

After the success of the education programs, Schulz explains that they have been able to get people to stay in Fergus Falls after that first visit because of the quality of life. “People who like lakes and outdoors, find they are abundant here, as well as what other things the community offers helps,” he says. “The biggest thing is that we get along with each other. That is a real positive thing that people see when they come for a visit.”

When asked what he thought health care would like in 10 years, Schulz believes that the health care industry is going to see more physician extenders (nurse practitioners and physician assistants) providing primary care.

“We won’t be replacing physicians, but those physician extenders will be working with the physicians,” he says.

At Altru, Kathy Kenyon is one of three employment recruiters. Her concerns are finding candidates for the most critical positions and getting younger people to stay in the Grand Forks area and working at Altru.

“They eventually come back,” Kenyon says. “It is more difficult to find a way to get them to stay here at the beginning.”

Rick Gessler, Employment/Employee Relations Manager, adds that he wants their next job to be at Altru. “The opportunity for advancement is huge,” he says, adding that Altru University provides different classes and helps employees develop core competencies and succession planning.

Altru is finding that pharmacists, physical therapists, and speech pathologists are always a challenge. To assist in finding those specialists, as well as other health care professionals, Altru has developed several different programs.

Grand Forks Public Schools and Altru Health System sponsor a joint venture called the School-to-Career program, in which high school juniors and seniors participate. Students are employed as nurse aides, health unit coordinators, or physical therapy and respiratory support staff in various patient care units. Since 2002-2003, it is estimated that 55 students have participated in the program of which approximately 25 are hired into permanent positions.

To address the shortage of family practice physicians, the Grand Forks Family Medicine Residency Program and Altru developed Mission Physician summer camps for high school students. These students are introduced to the world of family medicine through observation of clinical office practices, health care delivery, and clinical diagnosis and treatment procedures. Since the camps began in 2007, 238 students have participated. A survey of these students determined that 77 percent of them are majoring in health-related fields.

The Altru Health System Shadowing Program allows students and adults to observe actual work in a health care career of their choice. Each shadowing experience is two hours long. The program started 20 years ago and more than 13,500 shadowing appointments have been scheduled.

This is beneficial for Altru Health System. “The cost of hiring off the street is high,” Gessler explains. “When we hire those going through these programs we know what we’re getting and they know the organization and can focus on their jobs.” RRVPB