Every year, the Minnesota Rural Health Awards are announced at the state’s Rural Health Conference in Duluth, Minn., to recognize individuals and groups who have made a significant contribution to improving rural health in Minnesota. 

Hosted by the Minnesota Department of Health, Office of Rural Health & Primary Care, Minnesota Rural Health Association and the National Rural Health Resource Center, the Minnesota Rural Health Conference is one of the nation's largest state rural health conferences.

In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, the gathering was put on hold, yet the power of “rural” endured when organizers announced this year's awards during National Rural Health Week (Nov. 15-2, 2020). This year, all three top honors were given to affiliates of the University of Minnesota Medical School, Duluth Campus — two rural physician alumni and the Rural Medical Scholars Program.

Since 1972, the Duluth campus has been driven to end rural and Indigenous health disparities by educating physicians dedicated to family medicine and serving the needs of rural Minnesota and Native American communities. The mission-based campus is nationally recognized as second in the nation for training and graduating American Indian physicians. 

2020 Rural Health Lifetime Achievement Award 

The Minnesota Rural Health Lifetime Achievement Award was granted to Deborah J. Erickson, MD ’84, a family medicine/obstetrics physician, based at the Altru Clinic in Warroad, Minn. Dr. Erickson is a hometown hero and is the single longest-term physician in her rural community of Warroad, where she grew up and currently practices. 

The road to a career in rural medicine can be traced back to a clinic experience she encountered when she was 11 years old. With her mother driving an hour to the nearest clinic, they waited three hours due to an emergency surgery their doctor was previously attending. The experience allowed Dr. Erickson to realize the severe shortage of rural physicians at an early age. 

“I am grateful for the experience I had during my time at the Medical School, Duluth Campus, and I will always remember how thrilled I was when I found out I had been accepted into the program,” Dr. Erickson said. “They have always focused on the importance of encouraging a career in family medicine. I immediately felt comfortable with many classmates who also came from small towns. We were like a family.”

As a family physician, Dr. Erickson also had the opportunity to mentor medical students from the Rural Medical Scholars Program, giving them insight into the balance of family life while being heavily involved in a busy practice. 

“Nearly every small town in America is struggling with physician shortages,” Dr. Erickson said. “We all need to do our part to encourage high school students to consider becoming a future family physician in a rural community of their choice.”

2020 Minnesota Rural Health Hero Award 

Family medicine physician, Kim Kruger, MD ’97, was honored as the Rural Health Hero for her years of service as an educator and champion for quality rural healthcare. 

Medical education has been at the forefront of Dr. Kruger’s career from early on as a physician, recognizing her passion for teaching her patients, clinical team, family members – anyone who would listen about healthcare and the associated challenges. 

Growing up in New Ulm, Minn., Dr. Kruger was inspired by several local family physicians who took the time to mentor local high school and college students who showed interest in science and medicine. 

Sticking to her rural roots to practice medicine in underserved communities, Dr. Kruger began her rural physician experience in Buffalo, Minn., with a large women’s health/obstetrics practice for the first four years of her career. Her call-to-action came calling again when she joined the Duluth Family Medicine Residency Program team as a faculty member in 2004, continuing to train physicians for rural practice. Later, Dr. Kruger headed the development of a Physician Assistant (PA) program at the College of Saint Scholastica, designed for the PA and physician to practice as a partnered team. 

“For students considering rural practice, believe me when I tell you there is nothing more satisfying than caring for patients in a rural community,” Dr. Kruger said. “By being an integral part of the community you practice in, you develop a history and an understanding of your patients that just doesn't happen in any other setting.”

2020 Minnesota Rural Health Team Award 

Recognizing the shortage of rural physicians across the nation, rural family medicine preceptors involved in the Rural Medical Scholars Program of the Medical School, Duluth Campus was awarded this year’s Minnesota Rural Team Award. 

The Rural Medical Scholars Program recruits practicing family medicine physicians in rural Minnesota and Western Wisconsin who mentor medical students by offering them the opportunity to live and train with their preceptors as they care for patients of all ages.  

For nearly 50 years, the program has produced 260,000+ medical student teaching hours with the help of over 390 rural physician family primary preceptors spanning across 169 communities. 

“Our physician alumni and our RMSP preceptors demonstrate the impact of completing the professional development cycle from medical student to practicing physician,” said Associate Dean for Rural Medicine Peter Nalin, MD, MBA, FAAFP, at the Medical School, Duluth Campus. “The personal and professional rewards of rural practice continue to grow as the training and tools bring students and physicians together, especially during a pandemic year of new challenges and opportunities to make a difference.”