Opinion editor's note: Editorials represent the opinions of the Star Tribune Editorial Board, which operates independently from the newsroom.


Some of the former military men and women marking Veterans Day on Saturday might not be here had it not been for the lifesaving care provided by a combat medic.

While not physicians, these members of the armed forces are trained to rapidly respond to those injured in service to our country. Often, they attend to patients under the grimmest of conditions.

Patients may have suffered grievous wounds from bullets or bombs. Medics themselves may be under fire while operating in the field with just the medical equipment and drugs they can carry.

It's easy to see how those who have proven themselves in these conditions could make excellent physicians. That's why a pioneering new University of Minnesota Medical School program to help medics become doctors as they re-enter civilian life is both commendable and deserving of Minnesotans' support.

The new initiative is known as the "Medic to Medical School Pathway." The inspiration for it came from the experience abroad of Dr. Greg Beilman, a critical care surgeon, U medical school professor and associate dean of Department of Defense research and partnerships.

In 2022, Beilman was in Ukraine with the Global Surgical and Medical Support Group, a nonprofit "dedicated to providing medical relief to communities in conflict zones, austere environments and disaster areas around the world."

On that mission trip, Beilman worked with combat medics and was impressed. The Minnesota surgeon told one standout medic to apply to medical school. The medic replied that he intended to and was working with a program elsewhere that steers veterans with this experience into an M.D. program.

Beilman liked the idea so much that upon his return, he recommended the U set up something similar. While institutions the size of the U often move slowly, this proposal swiftly became reality. That reflects well on Dr. Jakub Tolar, the medical school's dean, and the rest of the medical school's leadership.

The program, which appears to be among the first nationally, is now accepting applicants. The aim is to get the first medics into the classroom in 2024 to complete prerequisite coursework and prepare for the medical school entry exam. And then, in 2025, into the medical school itself. (To learn more, go to tinyurl.com/MedicToMedicalSchool).

One of the program's key components is the support, advising and mentorship provided to participants to smooth their entry into medical school and civilian medicine. While there is no scholarship money for participants, Beilman and other officials hope donors will come forward who would like to help fund this assistance. (Contact information for Beilman and other program leaders is at the Medic To Medical School link above.)

In an interview, Beilman said that medics' talent, experience and maturity are qualities that will not only serve them well in the classroom but enhance the education of other students learning alongside them. The pathway program — which will accept between three and five students in its first group — has other potential benefits.

Historic workforce shortages plague health care in Minnesota and elsewhere. The pandemic left providers burned out. Looming physician retirements are also a serious concern. "The U.S. faces a projected shortage of between 37,800 and 124,000 physicians within 12 years," according to the American Medical Association.

The problem is especially acute in rural areas, as a Star Tribune editorial noted earlier this year. The median age for doctors practicing outside the metro is a decade higher than their urban counterparts — 58 vs. 48.

New solutions are sorely needed. Students with medic backgrounds not only have a running start on a medical education but may be especially suited to practicing in rural areas, which can require more self-reliance. Medics' experience with trauma injuries in combat zones will also serve them well. Helping patients hurt in farming or hunting accidents is part of the critical care physicians provide outstate.

The new U program is receiving a warm welcome.

Gov. Tim Walz, a National Guard veteran, said: "If you worked as a combat medic on a battlefield, we should be able to find a position for you within our medical system in Minnesota. Our veterans are a highly skilled and, in many cases, untapped workforce. I applaud the U for this program, as we continue to create opportunities for veterans in our state."

The Minnesota National Guard also praised the initiative.

"This is an exciting opportunity for military members to become physicians and continue to provide service to their communities. Their experience as combat veterans provides a unique bond with patients who also served in the military," Army Lt. Col. Jason Eggers, Deputy Commander of the Minnesota National Guard's Medical Detachment, said in a statement.

The Medic to Medical School program exemplifies the innovation needed to sustain and improve medical care in Minnesota. Hopefully, other medical schools will follow the U's lead, allowing veterans to continue serving their country after they return to civilian life.