OUR OPINION: Vital infrastructure: A new med-school buildingWith North Dakota’s surging population on track to jump by nearly a fifth over the next eight years, the state’s going to need more infrastructure — more roads, highways, sewage-treatment plants and schools. In all of those areas, the state already has started to build. Now, a new building for the UND School of Medicine and Health Sciences should be added to the list.
By: Tom Dennis, Grand Forks Herald
Ten years ago, North Dakota estimated when the state’s population would reach 651,000.
The demographers’ best guess?
It’s only 2012, but North Dakota’s population already has soared past 680,000. And “North Dakota’s population will break 800,000 by the end of the decade, according to state projec-tions,” Forum Communications reported in September.
With North Dakota’s surging population on track to jump by nearly a fifth over the next eight years, the state’s going to need more infrastructure — more roads, highways, sewage-treatment plants and schools.
In all of those areas, the state already has started to build.
Now, a new building for the UND School of Medicine and Health Sciences should be added to the list. Because among the things those 800,000 people are going to need is health care — and to keep up with demand, the state’s leading school for health-care professionals must grow its enrollment and find new digs.
There are two components to this proposal, which will be presented to the Legislature in the upcoming session.
• The first is need. A year ago, Jerry Jurena, president of the North Dakota Hospital Asso-ciation, testified to an interim legislative committee. “Hospitals across the state need family practice, internal medicine and mental health physicians,” he said.
“There is an overwhelming shortage that is, and will, continue to affect the availability and access of health care and the delivery of quality health care.”
A recent health care work force study agreed. By 2025, North Dakota will be short at least 210 physicians as well as significant numbers of other health professionals, concluded the study (which was mandated by the Legislature).
Making the population healthier will help. That’s the push behind UND and North Dakota State University’s joint master’s degree program in public health.
And training more doctors, nurses and therapists must play a role, too. That’s also in the works; and if it’s fully implemented, the UND medical school will see close to 200 new stu-dents, faculty and staff.
There’s just one problem: The school’s 60-year-old building, a converted hospital, already is too full. So, it’s simply not big enough to handle the new load.
That’s where the new “Space Utilization Study” comes in. Also mandated by the Legisla-ture, this study looked at both the existing space and how much new space will be needed to handle the expansion. Its conclusions are clear:
“The existing facility presents extraordinary challenges for accommodating the education of today’s medical and health service providers.”
Those challenges include overcrowded classrooms and labs, aging windows and heating systems, too little natural light, poor technological capability and structural pillars that present “nearly impossible obstacles for the open space learning environment of today,” the report states.
And to overcome the challenges, North Dakota should consider three options, the study reports. The first two add on to the existing building. The third vacates that building and constructs an entirely new building at a cost of $124 million.
That option — Option 3 — would cost more at first, but less than the other two over 40 years, thanks to energy savings, increased research-related revenues and other factors.
• Which brings us to the proposal’s second component — the first being North Dakota’s need, the second being the state’s ability to pay.
And on that score, this clearly is an exceptional moment in state history, because North Dakota’s projected $1.6 billion budget surplus actually puts a new medical-school building well within reach.
Add it all up, as the Legislature’s Interim Health Services Committee did in September, and you get this result: The committee approved Option 3, the proposal to build an entirely new home for the UND School of Medicine and Health Sciences, by a unanimous 9-0 vote.
North Dakota needs it, the state can afford it, and the net result is that the new building should be a priority, the committee concluded. The governor and Legislature should agree, giving North Dakotans an essential piece of medical-training infrastructure that will serve them for many decades to come.