When it comes to solving northwest Wisconsin’s ongoing workforce challenges that have been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, leaders understand that it truly will take a village. In fact, it will take innovation and collaboration among multiple “villages,” and the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire plans to help lead the way.
In the first of many planned meetings, UW-Eau Claire hosted a roundtable Feb. 3, bringing together 22 campus, local and state leaders to discuss implementation plans for the $9.4 million Wisconsin Innovation Award grant given to the university in December by the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. and the state’s Department of Workforce Development.
Missy Hughes, secretary and CEO of the WEDC, began the meeting by noting that among 12 grant recipients in this state initiative, the UW-Eau Claire and Mayo Clinic Health System grant is among the elite, with a proposal surrounding an issue she says is at the heart of nearly all other targeted workforce challenges represented in the other grants.
“I’m really struck by this group here today and the goals of your grant,” Hughes says. “In the previous seven roundtables, for grants focused on things like transportation, manufacturing and service industries, health care always came up. Your grant is rooted in the ways to strategically address the systemic challenges of rural health care, education and social services in meeting the needs of northwest Wisconsin.”
According to UW-Eau Claire Chancellor James Schmidt, the state will get “the most bang for the dollar” on this grant because of the perfectly aligned missions of UW-Eau Claire and Mayo Clinic Health System.
“There is very little daylight between the formal strategic plans of our two institutions,” Schmidt says. “This grant helps us accelerate the innovation we set out to accomplish five years ago, and brings about new ideas moving us toward our shared focus on a national reputation around health and human well-being.”
Dr. Michael Carney, assistant chancellor for strategic partnerships and program development at UW-Eau Claire, laid out what have been called the four pillars of the grant.
“We set out to innovatively solve the problems that are disproportionately impacting rural Wisconsin,” Carney says. “In nesting layers of action, we aim to address the immediate needs in health care, teaching and social services in rural communities, and to develop ways to address both emerging needs on the horizon and future needs we frankly can’t even envision yet.”
Those four pillars will address the following:
- Nursing, teaching and social worker shortages:
- Train more nurses though innovation in teaching methodology and collaboration with Mayo Clinic nursing staff.
- Support pre-service K-12 teachers financially to reduce their student debt, which will enhance rural job opportunities, often substantially lower in pay.
- Create networks of support among new teachers, nurses and social work professionals in rural communities.
- New health care careers:
- Create a master’s degree in public health at UW-Eau Claire, with an emphasis on rural public health and online delivery methods to improve access to the degree.
- Health care coaches
- Proactively prepare health care workers for technology-based, virtual community care delivery models, serving rural communities as a trusted liaison between patients and care providers.
- Innovation skills for rural business owners
- Focus on providing innovation skills for future job creators and main street business owners, equipping them with skills to better pivot in the face of a future catastrophic situation like COVID-19.
Building on a history of success
Key to the grant success is building upon the five-year collaborative research agreement between UW-Eau Claire and Mayo Clinic Health System, one that brings together students and faculty in research projects with Mayo clinicians and researchers.
Dr. Richard Helmers, regional vice president for the northwest Wisconsin region of Mayo Clinic Health System, is thrilled to move forward on collaboration in this grant, which he sees as a culmination of a very successful relationship.
“Our institutions have enjoyed a close and incredibly productive partnership over these past years, and I see this grant as a capstone of that partnership,” Helmers says. “As a person who grew up in a farming community, I have an intense interest in rural health care and the disparities that exist. Everything we do at Mayo Clinic is done to better the lives of our patients and care providers in northwest Wisconsin, and the work of this grant truly will make lives better.”
From the perspective of the WEDC, Hughes says the concept of the rural health coaches in this grant is exactly the type of idea that she and other state agents can hold up as an example of innovation and collaborative thinking that can drive real change.
"The plan for rural health coaches is something we find really exciting," Hughes says. "It shows a private entity like Mayo Clinic identifying a need in their communities and saying 'we want to solve this problem, but we're not going to try to solve it by ourselves.' The team of Mayo, the university, counties and economic development leaders demonstrates a whole-of-community approach. We can take that to other areas of the state as a way to think innovatively about rural health care."