A central Minnesota banker is teaming up with a New York academic to offer a novel solution to Minnesota’s looming doctor shortage: a for-profit osteopathic medical college housed in a converted public school in Gaylord.

The pair visited Minnesota politicians and hospital and clinic executives last week to see if they would host the school’s students for on-the-job training that would be a requirement for their degrees.

Partnering with a new medical school would be attractive to hospitals and clinics that need to replace retiring doctors and tend to an aging patient population, said Philip Keithahn, chief executive of ProGrowth Bank in Gaylord and the chief financial officer for the proposed college. “They have a huge vested interest in something like this working,” he said.

Keithahn and his partner have secured more than half of their start-up funding and won preliminary approval from the Gaylord City Council to convert a soon-to-be-vacated elementary and junior high school complex.

The Minnesota College of Osteopathic Medicine still faces big questions before it opens in fall 2018 — including whether it can recruit sufficient faculty to a town 50 miles southwest of the Twin Cities, where the students would complete their clinical training and how it will overcome what is already a shortage of postgraduate residency openings at local hospitals.

The school nonetheless presents a bold solution to Minnesota’s shortage of primary care physicians, which is expected to worsen even with young doctors emerging from the state’s three medical schools — University of Minnesota campuses in Minneapolis and Duluth and the Mayo Clinic’s school in Rochester. A wave of retirements is expected to leave rural Minnesota 800 doctors short at a time when the aging population will have more medical needs.

“The doctor shortage is a real problem … and it’s going to be a huge problem in the next 10 years in primary care,” said Dr. Joseph Willett, an osteopathic physician in Marshall who is evaluating the proposal on behalf of the Minnesota Osteopathic Medical Society.

Renovation of Gaylord’s Sibley Public Schools complex would create a high-tech campus for up to 150 students per graduating class, and would include student housing, said Jay Sexter, the chief executive of the new college.

Sexter, who once held administrative posts at Fordham University and the City University of New York, helped found four other osteopathic colleges, in California, Nevada, New York City and in Middletown in upstate New York as part of the Touro College and University System.

Investments in broadband and fiber-optic telecommunications in Gaylord made the concept possible, Keithahn said, because the school will emphasize high-tech learning. Students will watch online lectures before classes and take quizzes, which will help instructors tailor the actual in-class lessons. Anatomy lessons using cadavers or high-tech models, which can be programmed to exhibit diagnostic symptoms, will be recorded so students can watch and learn from their own performances.

“Students get bored taking notes with laptops in lecture halls,” said Sexter.

Preventive care

Osteopathic physicians represent a little-known subset of the profession, but they are doctors and represent 5 percent of Minnesota’s 22,235 licensed physicians — a share that is growing, according to the Board of Medical Practice.

Osteopathic medicine emerged a century ago as mainstream medicine turned toward more technological treatments. Its most controversial element is a belief in a manipulation technique akin to massage that is thought to improve the body’s receptiveness to treatment.

But the heart of osteopathic medicine is highly personal care that assesses patients’ well-being, Willett said. “It’s not just ‘You sprained your ankle.’ It’s ‘You sprained your ankle because you are depressed and you kicked the dog.’ ”

The philosophy also aligns with an emerging trend in American medicine toward holistic and preventive care. The number of accredited osteopathic schools — currently 30 — is rising fast, according to the Commission on Osteopathic College Accreditation.

Seeking partners for clinical training, Sexter met last week with leaders from a number of Minnesota health organizations, including Ridgeview Medical Center in Waconia, which is 30 miles from Gaylord, and Mayo Clinic.

“Mayo Clinic is interested in learning more about the Minnesota College of Osteopathic Medicine as we all work together … to improve primary care services, especially to those who live in rural areas,” a Mayo spokesman said.

Residency bottleneck?

Minnesota health care leaders are hearing out the ambitious plan but also wonder whether the new school can expand the number of residency slots for physician training. Four years of medical school is only the beginning for medical students; they then must commit to years of on-the-job training at teaching hospitals.

Minnesota’s teaching hospitals have already tapped out the federal funding they receive for training residents, but have added another 500 slots with the help of state medical education funding, said Troy Taubenheim, director of the Metro Minnesota Council on Graduate Medical Education.

“The bottleneck … is not the volume of medical school graduates but rather the limit of residency spots,” Taubenheim said.

Elsewhere, Sexter has worked with smaller hospitals to create new residency training programs, because they qualify for federal funding. The approach appears to have worked nationally: While the number of traditional M.D. residency slots has stagnated, the American Osteopathic Association reported an 18 percent increase this year in osteopathic residencies.

Keithahn said he hopes that attracting private investment to support a new medical school might allow the state to conserve some public funding for more residencies at large hospitals, but said he also hopes that small hospitals might partner to support new residency programs.

He also met with a leader at Gustavus Adolphus College last week and wants to befriend other small colleges so that local undergrads can have a path toward medical careers.

“We want this,” he said, “to be a Minnesota school.”