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Despite plea, Rice holds firm in ending radiologic tech training

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WILLMAR -- In spite of a plea to reconsider, Rice Memorial Hospital officials are holding firm to their decision last month to close the hospital's School of Radiologic Technology when the last students graduate in July 2012.

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The program, which trains students to administer X-rays and CT scans to patients, has been "a very good program," said Mike Schramm, chief executive of Rice Hospital.

But it's no longer feasible for the city-owned hospital to continue funding it, he said.

The school, which gets 50 to 100 applicants each year, stopped accepting new applications in September.

Financial pressures and a sustained decline in patient volume have made it critical for Rice to manage its expenditures, and dropping the training program for radiologic technologists was a necessary decision, Schramm said.

"We've had to look at lots of things in order to address our cost structure to get it where it needs to be. ... A lot of things went into the discussion and ultimately our decision," he said.

The issue was raised by Dr. Robert Kruger, a member of the Rice Hospital board of directors, at a board meeting Wednesday night.

Kruger said he was speaking on behalf of several individuals, including other physicians, in asking Rice to rethink closure of the program.

"I think we really need to take a serious look at this program and the advantages it has to Rice Hospital," he said.

The two-year program has 12 students. Six are in their first year of training and six are in their second year. Most of their hands-on clinical training is carried out at Rice Hospital, Affiliated Community Medical Centers and the Willmar Center for Diagnostic Imaging. Last year two more training sites were added in Olivia and Paynesville.

Hosting the program not only has given local providers a source of qualified technologists to staff medical imaging services but also has benefited Rice Hospital's reputation, Kruger said.

"What is that worth? Probably quite a bit," he said.

Dr. Richard Wehseler, the hospital's chief of staff, said he has heard similar concerns from local physicians.

"Historically we have kept a lot of the graduates here," he said.

According to program statistics, half of the graduates within the past 10 years have been hired to work within a 60-mile radius of Willmar, and about 30 percent were placed at facilities within Willmar.

One of the roles of being a regional hospital is to help educate future health care workers, Wehseler said. "If you back away from that, I think that removes your perception in the area of being a leader."

Kruger also shared figures disputing the hospital's estimate of what it costs each year to run the program. Once tuition and Medicare reimbursement are subtracted, the operational cost of the program is around $82,000 a year -- not the $175,000 hospital officials have said it costs, Kruger said.

The loss of students to help carry out medical imaging procedures might mean hiring additional employees to fill the gap, he said. "The students do fill a role. ... It doesn't take long to add up to $82,000 hiring one or two employees."

Bill Fenske, Rice Hospital's chief financial officer, said the hospital's direct subsidy to operate the radiologic technology school is $82,000 a year, but he and Schramm also stood by their estimate of $175,000 in annual gross operating costs. They said this figure doesn't include the indirect cost of supervision while the students are doing their clinical training. If the entire two years of training are taken into account, the overall gross cost of producing a graduating class comes to around $300,000.

Hospital officials said the loss of student trainees is unlikely to have any impact on staffing levels.

The goal has always been to offer a good experience for students, said Wendy Ulferts, chief nursing officer. "You don't staff less when you have a student," she said.

Hospital officials also said Wednesday that they remain committed to providing training opportunities in the health professions, from medicine to pharmacy to dental hygiene. Last year Rice hosted 400 students for clinical training or rural rotation experiences in Willmar.

"Those are things we've done and will continue to do. That's not anything that's going to change," Schramm said.

Kruger said he left Wednesday's board meeting with "a slightly clearer picture of all this."

"I'm glad we had a more in-depth discussion on this," he said.

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Anne Polta

Anne Polta covers health care, business/economic development and general assignment. Her HealthBeat blog can be found at http://healthbeat.areavoices.com. Follow her on Twitter at @AnnePolta.

(320) 235-1150
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