The doctor is not quite in. But he's on the way.
The lack of physicians and health gaps in the San Joaquin Valley will be addressed in coming years by a brand new program to locally train doctors.
UC Merced on Tuesday announced its first cohort of five students in its medical program set to begin this fall.
The students are from Modesto, Fresno, Fowler, Salinas and Bakersfield.
One of them, Randell Rueda, is a recent graduate from UC Merced. Rueda was born and raised in San Jose. In 2001, he moved to Fresno.
Rueda recalled the difference in health care while living in Silicon Valley compared to when he moved to the San Joaquin Valley. Access to health care in San Jose wasn’t a problem, but when he moved to Fresno, that changed.
Both of his parents became sick and he saw them struggle to get the specialized care they needed. "Everyone here in the San Joaquin Valley deserves the health care that everyone else gets all over California, and throughout the nation," he said. "I hope that through this program, with my colleagues, we'll be able to invoke a shift toward that equal health care for everyone in California, especially in the Central Valley."
The UC Merced San Joaquin Valley Program in Medical Education (PRIME) was born out of a partnership program between UC Davis and the UCSF’s Fresno facility. Students will spend their first two years at UC Davis. Their last two years will be spent working in clinics and hospitals in the Valley.
The program will eventually lead to the future development of the UC Merced School of Medicine.
UC Merced Chancellor Dorothy Leland said the critical health care needs in the Valley can't wait until the campus has its own medical school. In the meantime, those needs will begin to be addressed with the new PRIME program, and the students who have a strong commitment of going through the program, staying in the region and serving people in the Valley.
"California faces a critical shortage and an uneven distribution of physicians throughout the state, but particularly the gap is wide and huge and unacceptable in the Valley," she said. "There was a commitment from the very beginning of this institution to work diligently to address the health care needs of the Valley. In keeping with our mission to serve the Valley, we knew that we had to start planning right away to develop high quality programs that help improve the quality of life of our region."
Sidra Ayub from Modesto is another student in the program. Ayub wants to practice in the region, and thought there wasn’t a better way than to be taught and trained in the area with local patients. “I feel like there's a lot of need and different health disparities that we are going to work together on to attack as a team,” she said. “I really feel like it’s going to make a big impact in the Valley in the future, even within the next couple of years when people start seeing small changes toward a better future.”
Kelly Fujikawa, of Fowler, said the program will help her better serve patients in the Valley. "Hopefully, through this program, I hope to become a better advocate, a better doctor, a better teacher to the patients and to the people of the San Joaquin Valley," she said.
Another student, Agustin Morales, of Salinas, sees many parallels between the Salinas Valley and the San Joaquin Valley, in terms of access and quality of care. "There’s a lot of work that needs to be done to get to where we want to be, were we should be," he added.
But this program will make it easier to know what the most pressing problems are in the region, and how to best tackle them, said Christina Thabit, another student from Bakersfield. That’s one reason that attracted her to the program.
Another reason was to inspire younger people in the Valley to do the same. "I thought medicine was out of my reach, it was too far ahead, it was too big," Thabit said. “It was something that I wasn’t able to accomplish."
Donald Hilty, program director for the Rural PRIME at the UC Davis School of Medicine, and co-director of the UC Merced PRIME, said the program will train students for the "next generation of doctors."
The program is being funded with a $5 million grant from the United Health Foundation.
Leland said officials will "clearly need funding support for the continuation and, indeed, the growth of this program." "I would love to see the size double fairly quickly, but that’ll take some funding support," she said.
More developed academic and research programs, in addition to millions of dollars, will be needed before UC Merced can built its own independently accredited medical school, she said. "We need to work diligently on it,” she said. "We need to ask people to be patient so that we can do it right.”
And this week, the first five pioneers stepped onto a long and winding road.
Reporter Yesenia Amaro can be reached at (209)385-2482, or firstname.lastname@example.org.