Event aims to start conversation about health care in rural Minnesota – Duluth News Tribune

ROCHESTER, Minn. — Put the unpredictability of an open-mic format into the relaxed setting of a local winery, then call for ideas on health care in rural Minnesota. It’s all the ingredients for a lively town hall Tuesday, Sept. 27, in Cannon Falls.

The event, “Improving Patient Care in Rural Minnesota,” will mark the third in a September series of public forums moderated by Minnesota Public Radio’s Kerry Miller as part of the Rural Voice MN series.

The Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation, The Northland Foundation, The Initiative Foundation and with help from Compeer Financial and Mayo Clinic Health System are sponsoring the early evening discussion, all in hopes of enjoying a broader perspective than allowed through metro-based health care reporting.

The Sept. 27 event concludes a series of similar Rural Voice town halls on new business startups (Tuesday, Sept. 20, in St. Joseph) and education and training for the creative workforce in rural Minnesota (Wednesday, Sept. 21, in Chisholm).

“We’re excited to take a leadership role and really hear from the community,” said Dr. Robert Albright, regional vice president for Mayo Clinic Health System in Southeast Minnesota. “This includes what we do well as a healthcare provider, where we can do better, and for us to share the partnership we hope to build as we think about how healthcare will change over the next five, About 10 or 20 years.”

Participants hope the event will bring together professionals’ perspectives with patients and the public for 90 unscripted minutes of what’s happening in the changing landscape of health care delivery in Minnesota’s small towns and remote locations.

For Albright and other participants scheduled to participate, they include the continued deployment of telehealth systems and mobile health care providers amid provider consolidation, a shrinking workforce and unique issues facing rural Minnesotans.

“What we hear over and over again from members of our community is that they’re worried about equity, they’re worried about their ability to afford care, but what’s always number one and number two is behavioral health challenges and substance use disorders. I think these are really important conversations that we need to continue to have with each other … as well as reach out to members of our community.”

“In many rural counties, we have an aging population,” said Tim Penny, a former representative in Minnesota’s 1st Congressional District and president and CEO of the Southern Minnesota Initiative Foundation. “So how we meet those needs is extremely important in rural areas. Another issue is the distance to healthcare facilities and the growing importance of technology and telehealth to address some of these aspects of healthcare,” he said.

A recurring theme in emerging conversations about rural health care regionally and nationally is the closing of small town hospitals into the hands of larger health systems. According to the Center for Rural Health Economic Analysis, 140 rural hospitals have closed nationally in the past 12 years, affecting “the ability to respond to life-threatening problems in a timely manner.”

In a new report, researchers note that the closings caused not only a loss of hospital spending on ambulances, but also “reductions in employee costs … restaurants, professional services and other health care services” when a rural hospital closed or downsized. The Mayo Clinic has been criticized for closing clinics and hospitals in southern Minnesota in recent years, putting a local face on the national phenomenon.

“I expect it will come,” Penny said of the consolidation. “We will have an audience there … it will really be like a roaming microphone where everyone in the audience will have a chance to speak and raise concerns, and that will of course lead to others speaking to respond or continue a discussion . I can’t imagine it going anywhere without this issue being raised.”

For Cindy Firkins Smith, MD, senior vice president of rural health care for CentraCare Central Health System in Minnesota, the issues driving change are bigger than any one health system.

“I think it’s really important to have discussions about rural health care delivery and what the future of that looks like for our people,” said Firkins Smith, who called the event “important enough to drive from Spicer to Cannon Falls on Tuesday in the evening.”

“Rural health care is in crisis across the country,” she said. “Right now we have a scenario where we have inequality in the delivery of health care. Where we just don’t have enough people to provide health care to people who live in rural areas.”

She cited data from the Minnesota Department of Health showing that one in three rural doctors plans to retire in the next three to five years, “and we’re not producing enough clinicians to replace them.”

“We’re not training enough doctors, we have a lot of doctors retiring, we don’t have enough allied health professionals, and it’s going to be very difficult for us to provide the health care that we need.”

  • What: Rural Voice Town Hall: “What does it take to improve patient care in rural Minnesota?”
  • When: Tuesday, September 27. Doors open at 6:30. Beer, wine available. Discussion from 7 to 8:30 p.m., followed by a reception.
  • Where: Cannon River Winery, 421 Mill Street West, Cannon Falls, MN
  • Information: www.ruralvoice.org

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