WILLMAR -- Financial constraints have forced the closing of the School of Radiologic Technology at Rice Memorial Hospital.
Hospital officials announced Tuesday that the training program will come to an end in July 2012, when the final class of six students graduates.
Michael Schramm, chief executive of Rice Hospital, said the elimination of the program was "one of those decisions we felt we needed to make."
The city-owned hospital's budget is under significant pressure, making it critical to look for ways to be as streamlined and efficient as possible without compromising patient care, he said.
Hospital officials felt it was no longer sustainable for Rice to support the two-year training program for radiologic technologists, which was costing the hospital around $300,000 per graduating class.
"We just couldn't afford to do it anymore," Sch-ramm said Tuesday.
Students and faculty were notified last week of the hospital's decision.
"I'm sure it was a difficult decision," said Dana Woelfel, director of the program.
Reaction to the news was one of disappointment, especially among the students, he said. "It's just unfortunate that you lose educational programs... It's not anything we would choose to do in a time of economic strength."
Applications and new students to the program are no longer being accepted.
The long-standing program trains students to become radiologic technologists who administer general X-ray and CT medical imaging procedures. Six students are admitted each year to the program, which takes two years to complete and combines classroom study with on-site clinical training.
Woelfel said there are currently 12 students in the program. Six of them are in their second year and will graduate in July 2011. The remaining six began their first year of training this summer and will finish in 2012.
The program employs three staff members at Rice Hospital. It's coordinated through a partnership with Ridgewater College, where most of the classroom instruction takes place.
Although Rice Hospital and Ridgewater College receive tuition fees from students who are enrolled, "it obviously doesn't offset the cost," Schramm said. "It's always been a subsidized program."
Rice Hospital has footed the bill for the majority of the program's annual costs, he said.
Over the years, the program has placed registered radiologic technologists in almost every health care facility within a 60-mile radius of Willmar, Woelfel said. At Rice Hospital, where the hands-on training is provided, many of the technologists who work with the students are themselves graduates of the program, he said.
"There's some sense of ownership there," he said. "We definitely have a very strong clinical component. Students get a wonderful variety of exposures. We've had some pretty good support over the years."
At one time there were several similar programs in the region, Woelfel said. Most of these programs have been discontinued, however, leaving the one at Rice the last one in the area. Once it's discontinued, the nearest place offering training in radiologic technology will be the Twin Cities.
Schramm said the existence of the local program has been "a positive" for Rice Hospital.
"Obviously from a recruiting standpoint, it's a recruitment tool for us," he said.
Hospital officials have discussed the workforce impact of losing the program and concluded it's unlikely to be significant. "At this point we haven't had a challenge in recruiting," Schramm said.
This could change, however, depending on the economy and workforce supply and demand, he acknowledged. "We always know the cycle can come around and will come around at some point in the future."
The discontinuation of the School of Radiologic Technology won't affect other clinical training opportunities that are offered at Rice Hospital, Schramm said. He said Rice remains committed to working with Ridgewater College and other educational institutions to provide hands-on training for students in nursing, medicine, advanced-practice nursing, dentistry, dental hygiene and other health care professions. Last year the hospital hosted 431 students for clinical learning experiences.