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Willmar, Minn., hospital investing more than ever in workforce preparation, training

WILLMAR -- Rice Memorial Hospital is investing more than ever in workforce preparation, training and education, to the tune of thousands of hours annually, according to the hospital's latest human resources report.

The report, which was shared Wednesday with the hospital board of directors, documents workforce statistics and what Rice is doing to recruit, retain and train its employees.

When it comes to quality care and good outcomes for patients, one of the key driving forces is the staff, said Joyce Elkjer, director of human resources.

"I think you can take pride in our employees," she told the board. "They are a tremendous force."

That's why the hospital puts an emphasis on hiring well-qualified candidates and supporting them in their work, she said. "Being the best that we can be starts with attracting the best. ... My goal is to be the best that we can be in terms of an employer. I truly want Rice Memorial Hospital to be the employer of choice."

Rice employees collectively spent nearly 10,000 staff hours in education last year. In addition to this, they completed 14,800 computer-based learning modules on mandatory topics ranging from infection control to fire safety to confidentiality.

The hospital also offered 65 accredited continuing education courses for the medical staff totaling 2,075 hours of attendance.

"We're always training. It's a constantly moving goal," Elkjer said.

A market analysis each year helps ensure salaries and benefits remain competitive, she said.

Efforts to bring good staff candidates on board start early -- at the high school level, with a job shadowing program, and at the post-secondary level, with internships and clinical rotations that give students in the health professions a firsthand look at what it's like to be a health care employee at Rice.

Last year was one of the best on record for student experiences. Rice hosted 519 students, ranging from future dentists and doctors to paramedics, nurses, pharmacists and rehabilitation therapists. This is a 20 percent increase from the previous year. The job shadowing program for high school and college students also is expanding, Elkjer said.

Many summer interns end up being hired at Rice when they complete their training, she said. Research on development of the rural health care workforce also has found that when future health care professionals grow up in rural communities or attend part of their training in a rural setting, they're more likely to choose rural practice after graduation.

Fostering these opportunities comes at a cost but is "a tremendous component" of what Rice is doing to build a strong local workforce in the health professions, Elkjer said. "We are really spending a lot of time and intentionality and effort with this. ... One could almost say that we have a teaching element to our hospital."

After several years of paring the number of employees, hiring increased last year -- but some of this was due to the opening of the Therapy Suites short-term stay unit at the Rice Care Center, which necessitated adding a handful of new positions, and some reflects a structural change that brought Rice Home Medical under the full umbrella of the hospital. The durable medical equipment retail outlet operates at five locations in the region and has 69 employees.

Altogether, Rice hired 195 new employees last year, 90 more than the year before.

Employment at the hospital continues to fall. In 2008 there were 818 on the staff. By the end of 2011, this had fallen to 754.

Employment for the Rice organization as a whole has risen, however, from 929 in 2008 to 959 last year. This includes the staff of the Rice Rehabilitation Center, the Rice Care Center and Rice Home Medical.

Turnover crept up last year but most of it was due to retirements and relocations, Elkjer said.

Anne Polta

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

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