A Healthy Future

Breaking ground for the University of South Dakota’s (USD) new School of Health Sciences building Thursday are Dr. Tim Ridgway, Sanford School of Medicine; Scott Jones, Delta Dental of South Dakota; Art Rusch, District 17; Sheila K. Gestring, USD; Haifa Abou Samra, Ph.D., USD and Dr. Mary Nettleman, Sanford School of Medicine.

VERMILLION — With a turn of the shovel, the University of South Dakota broke ground Thursday for a new $22.5 million School of Health Sciences building.

The new three-story, 45,000-square-foot building will be connected to the medical school. The new health sciences building will help produce more professionals to meet the state’s growing demand, according to USD President Sheila Gestring.

“This is truly transformational,” she told the Press & Dakotan.

The state’s residents are familiar with the USD medical school and physicians, but the school also provides a wide variety of other health care professionals, Gestring said.

The School of Health Sciences contains more than 2,000 students, graduates 500-600 students each year and offers 16 degree-granting programs.

“As the state’s only comprehensive school of health sciences, we prepare our students to fill critical needs in so many areas vital to South Dakota’s health and well-being,” Gestring said. “Over 63% of those who graduate from a program in the School of Health Sciences remain in South Dakota to practice.”

USD attracts students from both in and out of South Dakota, the president said, noting the importance of also retaining them in the state after graduation.

“With this new building, we can accept more students and possibly offer more classes and programs,” she said. “We have a lot of retirements (of current professionals), but there is also the growing demand for many more health care workers to expand in those fields.”

The new School of Health Sciences building is projected for completion in August 2023. The $22.5 million includes $5 million from the Legislature, $4.5 from an anonymous donor and the remainder from the Higher Education Facilities Fund (HEFF) through the South Dakota Board of Regents.

SHOWING SUPPORT

At Thursday’s ceremony, Gestring acknowledged the broad-based support for the health sciences building.

“USD is so grateful to Gov. (Kristi) Noem, our state legislators and many others that helped us make this dream a reality,” she said. “This is truly a monumental day for the future of USD but also for the health and well-being for all the citizens in the state. The past few months (of the pandemic) have demonstrated for us the importance of a world-class health care infrastructure.”

The pandemic has brought new discoveries not only about disease and treatment but also in new ways of health care delivery, Gestring said.

“All of health care education learned there are things we can do differently because of the pandemic, and I think we’ll retain some of those things in the future,” she said.

In addition, USD officials announced Thursday a $1 million gift from the Delta Dental of South Dakota Foundation for the university’s dental hygiene program. In honor of the gift, the new community dental hygiene clinic at USD will be named the Delta Dental Oral Health Center.

The new School of Health Sciences building will be connected to the Andrew E. Lee Memorial Medicine and Science Building. In addition to the Delta Dental Oral Health Center, there will be modern classrooms, health science labs, simulation centers, study spaces and faculty offices.

“Oral health plays a significant part in overall health,” said Delta Dental CEO Scott Jones. “Expanding the dental hygiene program at USD helps ensure access to oral health care for South Dakota’s future.”

The School of Health Sciences will house programs including dental hygiene, nursing, physician assistant, addiction counseling and prevention, medical laboratory science, public health and health sciences, and social work.

By housing all the programs at one location, students can work together in the type of real-life situations they will encounter every day in hospitals and clinics across South Dakota, according to Haifa Abou Samra, dean of the School of Health Sciences.

“Our students and faculty have been dreaming about this building for quite some time, and we are excited to soon call it home,” she said.

Over the last decade, 4,400 people have earned degrees from the USD School of Health Sciences, she said. Many of the programs are unique to South Dakota and offered only at USD.

The graduates will become primary health care providers in a wide range of settings, she added.

The new building follows years of planning and work by many individuals, she said. The construction represents more than brick and mortar, she said.

“It’s an investment and our commitment to our health care in the state,” she said. “This building is a necessary investment not only for the here-and-now but for the future. It’s a critical asset that serves USD, and the best and brightest will receive an exemplary education for the state’s well-being and our economy.”

FINDING THE RESOURCES

During Thursday’s groundbreaking, District 17 State Sen. Art Rusch (R-Vermillion) spoke about his role during the 2020 legislative session with Senate Bill 40, which authorized the Board of Regents to contract for the construction of an allied health facility and the demolition of Julian Hall and the Julian Hall addition at USD.

“I was surprised at the difficulty getting the $5 million approved by the state Legislature,” he said. “Some of the most difficulty came from the very people from small towns and rural areas of South Dakota who would most benefit from this greater presence of the health care professionals through the state.”

After the groundbreaking, Rusch told the Press & Dakotan that the opposition during the 2020 Legislature may have come from people not understanding the project and the programs it would benefit.

Some people mistakenly thought the construction was for the medical school, he said. Others thought USD had the alumni and private support to raise funds for the project on its own rather than use state funds, he added.

“And then there are people who would just rather spend the money on county highways,” he said. “That was the biggest competition (for the money).”

In the end, supporters of the new USD health sciences center won the needed support through personal contact, information and persuasion, Rusch said. One of the main points was that the building project would benefit not only the state’s larger communities but also the smaller towns and rural areas, he added.

USD has found success with its Frontier And Rural Medicine (FARM) program, which gives medical students an opportunity to receive nine months of clinical training in rural communities, Gestring said. The goal is to increase the number of primary care physicians in rural South Dakota.

The same concept can be used for attracting other health professionals to underserved areas, Gestring added.

“With the FARM program, students move into the more rural communities. After they become involved with serving out there, they decide to stay and become primary physicians,” the president said.

Rusch sees a great reliance on allied health professional in rural areas. He pointed to the growing use of physician assistants (PA) and nurse practitioners (NP), along with other fields.

“I think you will see more physician assistants in the small communities than you are going to see an MD (medical doctor),” he said. “It helps the smaller communities where they don’t have the ability to support an MD but they can support a PA or NP who has a relationship with a doctor somewhere else.”

Rusch pointed to his own experience where a family member suffered an eye injury while traveling in the Black Hills. The person was taken to the Custer hospital, where the staff connected through telemedicine with an ophthalmologist in Rapid City for the needed care.

That kind of long-distance delivery will become even more common in rural areas, Rusch predicted.

South Dakota needs to graduate more health care professionals in order to maintain its economy, Gestring said. “We have to increase the available (professionals) here in South Dakota to be able to continue developing our workforce,” she said.

In addition, strong health care also leads to a better quality of life, she said.

“By providing the next generation of health care professionals an opportunity to learn and grow as professionals, we will ensure future generations of South Dakotans and their families have the opportunity to live happy, healthy and productive lives,” she said.

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