As baby boomers retire from their health care jobs over the next decade, it’s estimated that Montana will need 16,000 new workers to replace them.
Much of that need will come in rural areas of the state – places that will face a dire shortage of professionals barring a new wave of trained health care providers.
The University of Montana and its Health and Medicine Program is poised to fill that gap.
“The social and economic burden of premature disease and disability is something that weighs on all of us,” said Reed Humphrey, dean of the College of Health Professionals and Biomedical Sciences at UM. “It will affect all of us well into the future. This college and other units on this campus are dedicated to finding solutions.”
The college received a significant boost in achieving that goal on Thursday when Mark and Cheryl Burnham of the Madrona Hill Foundation announced $1 million in seed funding to the university’s Health and Medicine program.
Among other things, the gift will provide investment to the program over the next five years and create new training opportunities in health care, as well as attracting new students to the profession.
“With our gift, we hope to spur positive change in Montana’s health care landscape,” said Cheryl Burnham, president of the Madrona Hill Foundation. “We hope to inspire others to invest in the future of one of UM’s most innovative and productive new programs.”
Humphrey, joined by University of Montana President Seth Bodnar, cited recent statistics on the looming gap of health care workers. The timing of the shortage couldn’t be worse, given the wave of baby boomers heading into retirement – a generation that will need care of its own.
“We have a special commitment to rural and underserved populations,” Humphrey said. “This investment is in our ability to be innovative, find new ways to manage premature chronic disease and disability, and to really extend both the university’s reach and our caregivers’ reach into places that desperately need us now and into the future.”
With the seed funding announced Thursday, the university’s Health and Medicine initiative will launch an occupational therapy training program in collaboration with Montana State University-Billings, which was approved by the Montana University System’s Board of Regents last year.
A feasibility study funded by Montana’s Office of Public Instruction revealed a growing need for occupational therapists in the state, and it identified a training program as a key way to address the shortage.
Bodnar said the funding also will create the Burnham Family Population Health Fellowship for doctoral students in public health, along with the Burnham Family Practice in Montana Scholarship. The scholarship will support UM students in health care who plan to practice in rural and underserved areas of the state.
“Both of these meet very important needs in the community,” said Bodnar. “When you think about population health, you think about emerging diseases and the need for people who understand and assess those challenges at the population level.”
Established several years ago, UM Health and Medicine supports improved health outcomes for Montana residents through strategic partnerships, and by educating practitioners to serve in locations across the state.
The UM campus currently houses seven clinics, over 20 laboratories and 55 degree paths in health and medicine studies, including two-year and doctoral programs.
“We have a world-class research university with great depth in health and medicine,” Bodnar said. “We also have a wonderful opportunity to expand our focus in this area and really establish UM as the health and medicine university, not just in this state but in this region. Today’s gift, and the generosity of Mark and Cheryl, is phenomenal in helping move that vision forward.”
Thursday’s event, attended by nearly 100 students and faculty, moved Mark Burnham to tears as he recounted his wife’s dedication to pharmacy and health care. She graduated from the UM program in 1986. Her experience prompted the family to return to campus with financial support.
Now, they hope, others will invest in the school’s health and medicine program to address what experts say is a looming crisis, that being the state’s shortage of health care employees.
“It’s going to provide that strategic investment capital that we so need,” Mark Burnham said. “For the university to grow and prosper and be good for the long term, it’s going to take private commerce to make that happen. The state only has so much money. It’s our obligation to do these great things.”