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UNK Program Creates Connections With Rural Hospitals

Robert Dyer, CEO of Cozad Community Health System, meets with health science students Tuesday during the Hospital Partners Networking Event at UNK. (Photo by Erika Pritchard, UNK Communications) Robert Dyer, CEO of Cozad Community Health System, meets with health science students Tuesday during the Hospital Partners Networking Event at UNK. (Photo by Erika Pritchard, UNK Communications)

KEARNEY – University of Nebraska at Kearney health science students are a hot commodity.

With a statewide workforce shortage, health care facilities across Nebraska are looking to Lopers to fill their current and future needs.

“Across all professions, there’s a really significant need for more health care providers, particularly in rural Nebraska,” said Peggy Abels, director of UNK Health Sciences. “These facilities want to recruit our students.”

That was obvious Tuesday, when the department hosted its first-ever Hospital Partners Networking Event. Representatives from nine hospitals and health care systems were on campus for the event, giving them an opportunity to connect with UNK and University of Nebraska Medical Center students.

They talked about job shadowing and internships, clinical rotations, entry-level positions and long-term career opportunities, all while promoting the benefits of practicing in a rural community.

“We want to engage students and make those personal connections as early as we can so we can bring good, young, progressive talent into health care and continue to take care of our communities,” said Robert Dyer, CEO of Cozad Community Health System.

Dyer and the other members of UNK’s hospital partners program know these relationships can be mutually beneficial down the road. If students are educated and trained in rural Nebraska, they’re more likely to practice in these communities as health care professionals.

“Had I had the opportunity to do my PT school here, I would have done it in a heartbeat, because I like small communities way more than I like the rat race of Lincoln and Omaha,” said Dyer, a Hyannis native who earned his Master of Physical Therapy and Doctor of Physical Therapy degrees from UNMC.

The UNMC physical therapy program is now offered in Kearney, and Dyer assists with a wound care course.

Sarah Ernest shared a similar story.

Like Dyer, the Ewing native grew up in a small, rural community. She attended UNK as a member of the Kearney Health Opportunities Program (KHOP), which provides financial assistance, academic support and professional development opportunities for students from rural Nebraska who are committed to practicing in these communities as health care providers.

After graduating from UNMC, she landed a job at Sidney Regional Medical Center, where she works as an ultrasound, CT and X-ray technician.

Ernest isn’t shy about promoting the “awesome” environment at Sidney Regional and her love for rural health care.

“I love the fact that I get to serve members of my community,” she said. “Sometimes that can be a difficult situation when there’s a negative prognosis, but you still get to be there for people you care about in moments when they need you.”

Sidney Regional Medical Center started its partnership with UNK Health Sciences last fall, with the networking event serving as their initial introduction to students.

“This is our first event, but definitely not our last,” said Malarie Gabel, a community navigator who organizes the hospital’s outreach activities.

The medical center is hosting a group of KHOP participants next month, and UNK health science students will spend a week in the community this summer as part of the new Rural Immersion Program. Available in Sidney and McCook, that program allows Lopers to experience rural health care firsthand and engage in the community while earning internship credit.

Sidney Regional offers a paid summer internship program, as well.

“Our partnership with UNK is extremely valuable,” Gabel said. “It brings a lot of students into our door that we never had access to before.”

There are more than 800 undergraduate health science students at UNK, and a record 72 high school seniors were recently accepted into the KHOP program for fall 2024. That’s an encouraging sign for the 13 hospitals that are part of the growing partnership program.

“It’s all about connecting the hospitals with students at all stages of their education, from UNK freshmen through UNMC graduates,” Abels said. “By increasing these touchpoints and extending that runway into employment, we can move students down that pipeline and help them take that next step and be successful practicing in rural Nebraska.”