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New nursing programs aim to attract rural providers to central Minnesota

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects employment growth of 12% for registered nurses between 2018 and 2028. The number of jobs for nurse practitioners — who often provide primary care in clinic settings — is projected to grow by 28%.

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Nkeiruka Iogbonna and Wyatt Orth, both nurses at CentraCare’s St. Cloud Hospital, are part of St. Cloud State’s first cohort of students earning a nursing doctorate through a collaboration with the University of Minnesota. TNS photo
Jenny Berg, Star Tribune
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ST. CLOUD, Minn. — Two St. Cloud-area colleges are bracing for the projected shortage of health care workers over the next decade by developing programs to create more advanced practice providers.

This fall, the College of St. Benedict in St. Joseph enrolled students in its first doctoral program, which features pathways for students to become family nurse practitioners or earn a doctorate with an emphasis in health care leadership.

St. Cloud State is developing its own doctoral program in collaboration with the University of Minnesota, with its first cohort enrolled this fall that will participate in clinical rotations in central Minnesota but graduate from the U. Program organizers at St. Cloud State hope to have a stand-alone program within the next few years.

"National trends show, from a primary care perspective in general, we will be facing a shortage of providers, said Bobbie Bertram, advanced practice provider director for CentraCare, a health care system with eight hospitals and more than 30 clinics in central Minnesota. "This is a way that we can identify individuals at a local level who are interested in providing clinical services to our communities."

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics projects employment growth of 12% for registered nurses between 2018 and 2028. The number of jobs for nurse practitioners — who often provide primary care in clinic settings — is projected to grow by 28%.

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"In central Minnesota, we have a lot of rural areas and that can be difficult at times to attract providers to," said Jennifer Peterson, assistant professor of nursing and chair of the new graduate nursing program at St. Ben's. "Family nurse practitioners are providers that tend to fit in those areas very well. They fill the gap for the need for primary care in rural areas."

This fall's St. Ben's cohort has 14 students working toward a doctor of nursing practice on either the family nurse practitioner or the leadership track. A third track — a master of science in nursing — is being developed for launch next fall. The programs are a combination of in-classroom and online work to provide flexibility for students who are working professionals.

The spark for St. Cloud State's program started through a conversations with CentraCare, said Roxanne Wilson, interim chair of St. Cloud State's nursing department.

"As we and [CentraCare] were looking at the future of health care and the needs in the central and rural areas, we found the need for family practice providers is significant as we move forward, as the population ages, as the population grows," Wilson said.

The four students in the St. Cloud State cohort will complete much of the program virtually with some in-person training at the U campus.

"By partnering with the U, we get the years of experience that they have as educating practitioners," said Mary Pesch, the liaison for the doctoral nursing program. "We're gaining knowledge and expertise as we start our program."

CentraCare has promised at least six clinical rotation spots per cohort, Pesch said. CentraCare also partners with St. Ben's to provide clinical rotations.

"It is extremely important for us to provide these opportunities for students because we really are training our future workforce," Bertram said. "That's a responsibility that we have as an organization."

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St. Cloud State graduate Wyatt Orth is one of the students in St. Cloud State's fall cohort. Orth, 25, is a registered nurse in the intensive care unit at St. Cloud Hospital. He said his ultimate goal is to be a family nurse practitioner in central Minnesota.

"I've got a lot of roots in St. Cloud," he said. "I'll probably stay around here."

St. Cloud resident Nkeiruka Iogbonna, 45, also is in St. Cloud's cohort with the U. She graduated from St. Cloud State with a nursing degree in 2015. Her inspiration was her mother-in-law, who was a midwife in Nigeria, Iogbonna's home country. After working full time at St. Cloud Hospital for three years, she transitioned to part-time weekend shifts to be able to focus on the doctoral program during the week. Iogbonna said she understands how difficult it may be for some professionals to further their education — despite seeing a huge need for preventive care providers.

"People want to grow, but making that happen takes a lot of sacrifice," she said.

The diversity of St. Cloud State students — by way of race, gender, income level and other factors — is beneficial to the cohort and the wider region as students move into careers.

"If you look at our population of students in the undergrad program, many of them have experienced the impact of social determinants of health. So as they move into these roles, they're not just talking and learning about them, they have lived them," Wilson said. "We want to have that mix of students who come from a variety of backgrounds because what you can learn from each other in a cohort is so valuable. You develop bonds there. You help each other see a new view of the world."

Cultivating careers of students who want to stay in central Minnesota is crucial, Bertram said.

"We serve a significant portion of rural Minnesota. To be able to bring individuals who are local, who have roots in central and rural Minnesota, who are interested in continuing their education and then taking that education and serving their communities — I think that's probably one of the coolest things about these programs," she said. "As we redesign how we deliver primary care, we know that a lot of our care ideally is taking place outside of hospital walls.

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"We want to focus on patients and communities at the healthy stage, the preventive stage," Bertram continued. "We want to be able to manage, successfully, chronic diseases in the clinic settings and keep people out of hospitals. That's the goal — to keep people healthy."

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Karina Barabash and Denise Christie are both College of St. Benedict graduates who participated in the doctoral program. TNS photo
Jenny Berg • jenny.berg@startr

Much of St. Ben's program is made up of alumnae, including Denise Christie, of Sauk Rapids, and Karina Barabash, of Shoreview.

Barabash, 27, works at Regions Hospital in St. Paul in the rehabilitation unit.

She said she hopes to move beyond bedside care to become a family nurse practitioner or work in outpatient rehab for patients with strokes or traumatic brain injuries.

Christie, 43, works as a nurse anesthetist for CentraCare. She's one of the three students enrolled in the leadership doctoral program and plans to stay in central Minnesota.

"I can't think of a time more than now in health care where we have needed strong leadership," Bertram said.

"To have programs locally in central Minnesota that are helping build that pipeline of future leaders is extremely important."

©2021 StarTribune. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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