BIDDEFORD – As health care is being transformed, it is important to recognize the critical role universities play in Maine and across the country.

The most obvious role is that of educating health care providers. The demands for an expanded health work force are increasing beyond the current supply because:

Current health care providers are aging and retiring.

Our entire population is aging and needs more health care services.

As more people become insured under federal health reform, more are likely to seek health services, especially primary care.

The University of New England, as a private health and sciences university grounded in the liberal arts, and the largest educator of health care providers in Maine, has an important public mission — we are committed to meeting the increasing demand for health care providers.

Already, one in four physicians practicing in Maine’s underserved rural areas — and one in six of all Maine’s primary care physicians — are UNE College of Osteopathic Medicine graduates.

UNE’s College of Pharmacy will graduate its first class in May, with about one-third of its students from Maine, and almost all of them with school scholarship support.

Next summer, UNE will open the College of Dental Medicine, the first dental school in northern New England, with a focus on addressing the dental work force shortages, felt most acutely in Maine’s rural areas.

UNE also has long-standing programs that produce nurses, social workers, physician assistants, dental hygienists, occupational therapists, physical therapists, athletic trainers, applied exercise scientists, nurse anesthetists and public health professionals. In fact, nearly 600 UNE students provide more than 300,000 clinical hours valued in the millions of dollars each year statewide and regionally.

Universities also act as a catalyst in the evolving role of the health care work force. It is not sufficient for universities to produce higher numbers of health professionals; we must also ensure students graduate with the new competencies needed for the 21st century.

For instance, we know from root-cause analyses that 80 percent — four out of every five — of the 100,000 annual deaths in the U.S. from medical errors are due to insufficient communication, coordination and/or collaboration among health care providers — in other words, poor teamwork.

UNE is one of only a handful of private universities implementing a full array of interprofessional education strategies, in which our health professional students learn the competencies of teamwork.

As an example, many UNE students from diverse health profession disciplines take courses together, attend weekly interprofessional seminars, jointly study patient case presentations and, importantly, then work in clinical settings together as teams of interprofessional students.

Health reform calls for all primary care health professionals to have core competencies of public health so they can provide health care for not only individual patients but also for their entire patient panel. For example, they need to provide vaccinations for patients who make such appointments, as well as implement strategies to assure their entire patient population has access to vaccines. These skills are most easily obtained through public health education.

UNE’s Master’s of Public Health program is the only accredited MPH in Maine and is one of very few programs that offer an MPH degree entirely online. This past May, UNE conferred 32 MPH degrees, of which three-quarters were practicing health professionals and 18 were from Maine, including six from rural Down East and Aroostook County.

Finally, universities can make Maine healthier in their role as large employers and places of residence for young people. As a Maine employer of 1,000 and educator of 8,000 students, UNE embraces worksite wellness programs for students and employees by providing walking and biking opportunities in a smoke-free environment with abundant healthy food and beverage options.

UNE is one of five organizations participating in the Maine Health Management Coalition’s CEO Champion Program, committed to further improving health practices in our workplace. As a result of these practices, the overall health of the university has improved; in fact, our employees received health care rebates for the 2011 benefit year, and we’ve contained our health care premium costs in 2011-12 and 2012-13.

Whether we are producing health professionals to address work force shortages, leading the transformation of health care practices, or addressing the health of its students and employees, universities play a vital role in the changing complexion of health care in Maine and nationally.

Danielle N. Ripich, Ph.D., is president of the University of New England.