ORHPC Minnesota Rural Health Conference

The Minnesota Rural Health Conference

2019 conference

June 17-18, 2019
Conference website
Duluth Entertainment Convention Center (Map)
350 Harbor Drive
Duluth, MN 55802

Join our conference mailing list

Make sure you are aware of important conference information by subscribing to receive email updates!

An RFP is sent out in November/December for breakout sessions. Sponsor, exhibitor and participant registration opens in April. 


The 2018 Minnesota Rural Health Conference

MN rural health conference

2018 Rural Health Awards

The 2018 Rural Health Hero, Team and Lifetime Achievement winners were announced at the MN Rural Health Conference Awards Breakfast, Tuesday, June 26.

At the Minnesota Rural Health Conference in Duluth this week, MDH and its partners recognized three dedicated health care professionals who have made lasting or significant contributions to the health and well–being of their rural communities.

The Minnesota Department of Health, Minnesota Rural Health Association and Duluth–based National Rural Health Resource Center presented the 2018 Minnesota Rural Health Awards to the following honorees:

  • Donna Erbes, Health Services Director at the Southwestern Minnesota Opportunity Council, Family Planning Program in Worthington, received the Rural Health Hero award.

  • The Caring Hands Dental Clinic in Alexandria, received the Rural Health Team award.

  • Dr. Michael Zakula, retired orthodontist from Hibbing, received the Rural Health Lifetime Achievement award.

Minnesota’s rural health care workforce combines outstanding service and commitment through innovative solutions and community–based partnerships. When residents come together, solutions can be tailored for specific issues and maintained more easily with local support and involvement. “Health happens where we live, learn, work and play,” said Minnesota Health Commissioner Jan Malcom. “Our rural health honorees exemplify the many ways people collaborate together to improve the health of rural communities.”

The Minnesota Rural Health Conference presents these awards each year. The Minnesota Department of Health's Office of Rural Health and Primary Care, the Minnesota Rural Health Association and the National Rural Health Resource Center host the conference. This year’s conference focused on "Communities: The heart of health." More information is available online at Minnesota Rural Health Conference.

Rural Health Hero Award

Donna Erbes

Donna Erbes, RN, BSN, received the 2018 Minnesota Rural Health Hero Award. As the Health Services Director of the Southwestern Minnesota Opportunity Council (SMOC) Family Planning Program, Donna Erbes is a leader in the field of reproductive health care in Minnesota. Recognizing that access to health care is a health disparities issue, Erbes expanded SMOC’s service area from eight to fifteen counties during her tenure.

As a Community Action Agency, SMOC serves the needs of low-income persons and Erbes excels at creating and sustaining collaborative partnerships that work for the mutual benefit of all parties, but more importantly, for the health of her community.

Knowing that rural areas must actively work to recruit and maintain their health care workforce, Erbes volunteers as a preceptor for aspiring registered nursing students from various Minnesota colleges and universities.

In 2017, Erbes was asked to be on the Advisory Council for the Southwest Minnesota State University’s RN to BSN Program where her decades of rural nursing perspective is valued and appreciated.

In 2018, Erbes was inducted into the Southwest Minnesota Nursing Honor Society where she will serve as a mentor for nurses working in rural healthcare.

Rural Health Team Award

Caring Hands Dental Clinic (Caring Hands)
received the 2018 Minnesota Rural Health Team award. A designated critical access dental provider, Caring Hands provides dental care and a dental home to Minnesota Health Care Programs (MHCP) recipients in 34 counties across the state of Minnesota. Twelve years ago, Caring Hands began as a volunteer group of local citizens from Alexandria who saw an urgent and critical need for dental care for their underserved community members. The newly formed Caring Hands Board of Directors began an emergency dental program, with the goal of reducing the number of individuals going solely to the Emergency Room for dental symptoms.

In 2006, the Caring Hands Board established a dental clinic to provide ongoing preventive dental care as well as education. The clinic’s patient base is 98 percent MHCP recipients, sliding fee scale recipients and the uninsured. In the last three years Caring Hands has treated over 2000 dental emergencies. The initial clinic operated with volunteer dentists from the surrounding community but in 2012, two full-time dentists were hired with a complimenting staff and a recently acquired Community Health Worker that helps patients with necessary referrals and follow–up care.

In addition to their clinic work, Caring Hands has created the following innovative programs to serve additional oral health needs in the area: the Mobil Outreach Hygiene Clinics; the More Smiles Program; the Head Start and Nursing Home Outreach Hygiene Program, and free school programs such as the Open Wide Program. Furth and Oral Health Education Presentations. They also provide over 10,000 free toothbrushes a year to patients and food shelves. Further clinic sites are being planned for the future.

Oral health is an important health equity issue for all Minnesota residents and providing access to that dental care is a key component for overall health. The efforts of Caring Hands has had a lasting impact for the citizens of Minnesota and it is an example of how one community’s innovation can positively impact so many people.

Rural Health Lifetime Achievement Award

Michael Zakula

Michael Zakula, DDS, has received the 2018 Minnesota Rural Health Lifetime Achievement for his years of clinical practice in Hibbing as an orthodontist and for his volunteerism on behalf of organized dentistry and rural health.

Having spent the majority of his career as one of the few orthodontists north of the Twin Cities, Zakula worked tirelessly to make sure rural residents have access to oral health care. He was instrumental in creating scholarship and loan forgiveness opportunities for dentists who, in exchange, work in communities that would not otherwise have access to dentists. Zakula was also instrumental in establishing the Hibbing Community College Dental Clinic which serves as a training facility for dental assistants, dental hygienists and dental students. In turn, the clinic provides comprehensive dental services to thousands of underserved, rural Minnesotans.

Zakula said, “When you are a rural dentist you have to figure out how to take the initiative and solve problems within your own community. Over the course of my career, I have had many opportunities to get involved with issues that mattered to me. In rural communities, getting something done in one area often has a ripple effect of improvement throughout the rest of the community which is incredibly satisfying. That reliance on each other creates deep roots and resilience.”

Having served on the committees of countless professional associations, Zakula accepted the appointment to the Minnesota Rural Health Advisory Committee in 2015 and has helped provide a voice for rural Minnesotans with limited access to dental care.

“The opportunity to become involved in solutions to problems has been extremely rewarding for me and it is all a part of what it means to practice dentistry in a rural setting,” he said.

Read about award recipients from previous years.


Conference hosts

The Minnesota Rural Health Conference is hosted by:

For more information, please contact ruralhealthconference@ruralcenter.org or call (218) 216-7041 if you have questions about the conference.