By Anne Polta
Brandi Tweeter is one of the first in Minnesota to complete training as a dental therapist, the state's newest midlevel health profession.
Tuesday afternoon she found herself talking to Sen. Al Franken, explaining the care she provides for dental patients in the Montevideo area and the need she has been able to fill.
Tweeter said she became licensed at the end of January and started seeing patients Feb. 1. This past month she had 23 new patients. "I have some coming to me as far as one and a half to two hours away," she said.
Franken, who has supported efforts to expand access to dental care by establishing training programs and licensing for midlevels, asked her what happens to patients who don't have this option.
"They're probably on a waiting list to get in somewhere else," Tweeter responded.
Franken is using the Easter recess in Washington, D.C., to travel around his home state, visiting with constituents and learning about their concerns.
During a stop at Rice Memorial Hospital in Willmar Tuesday, he heard about the many local efforts taking place to train health care professionals for rural Minnesota.
Local health leaders said Willmar holds the record for the number of University of Minnesota Medical School students who participated in the Rural Physician Associate Program during their third year of training and came back to the area to practice after they graduated. Last year Rice Memorial Hospital hosted clinical training rotations for 400 students, ranging from future doctors and nurses to technologists and therapists.
"That really helps the workforce," said Joyce Elkjer, director of human resources.
The Rice Regional Dental Clinic was touted as an especially successful example of a program to prepare dentists, dental therapists and dental hygienists.
Operated in partnership by Rice Hospital and the University of Minnesota, it's believed to be the only hospital-based program of its kind in the U.S. It not only provides rural hands-on training opportunities for these students but also increases access to dental care for the region's low-income and underserved population.
Since the site opened in December 2007, it has provided $6 million in dental care for people from 17 counties, said Wendy Foley, program coordinator of the Southern Minnesota Area Health Education Center. "We're very proud of our students and their efforts," she said.
But Franken also heard about some of the workforce challenges that health leaders are facing.
The current workforce is aging and soon will be retiring in large numbers, said Dale Hustedt, chief administrative officer at Rice Hospital. "To be able to replace the staff we have is really going to be a monumental task," he said.
Dr. Ronald Holmgren, president of Affiliated Community Medical Centers, said the shortage of some medical specialties, such as orthopedic surgeons, is reaching a crisis. Reimbursement inequities and limited training slots are adding to the problem, he said. "I think there is a bottleneck with training and residencies and how they're funded," he said.
Other professions -- occupational therapists, physical therapists, respiratory therapists -- are in short supply too, Elkjer said. "If you talk to hospitals, those are the crying needs currently."
Officials said a lack of sites willing to host clinical training for students in the health professions is an issue too.
Franken said the discussion underscored what he has been hearing elsewhere around Minnesota: There's a need for trained, skilled workers in all industries.
"It's not just rural America," he said. "We have to invest in educating people and training people."
The senator, who serves on the Senate Committee on health, education, labor and pensions, said he has been focusing for the last several months on workforce training issues. "We really do need to invest in our workforce," he said.