UC Merced said it's taking the first big step in creating its own medical school -- two years ahead of schedule.
Next fall, the school will enroll six medical students into its fledgling school -- a partnership program between UC Davis and the University of California, San Francisco's facility in Fresno.
Fred Meyers, executive associate dean of UC Davis School of Medicine and executive director of Medical Education and Academic Planning for UC Merced, unveiled plans Wednesday at the UC Regents meeting in San Francisco.
The program, the UC Merced San Joaquin Valley Program in Medical Education (PRIME), will be the University of California's sixth PRIME.
PRIME programs specifically target underserved areas or populations in the state.
The health of the San Joaquin Valley historically has been impaired, Meyers said, and much of that has to do with social determinants, such as poverty and a lack of education. The med school is a chance to improve the lives of many by increasing the number of health care workers in an underserved region.
The program will draw on UC Davis' medical education and research programs and one program in particular, the campus' existing Rural-PRIME, according to a news release from UC Merced.
The Rural-PRIME trains medical students to become leaders and advocates for improving health care in smaller isolated regions.
It will also build on the emerging strengths of UC Merced's Health Sciences Research Institute and Center of Excellence for the Study of Health Disparities in Rural and Ethnic Underserved Populations, UC Merced officials said.
Given today's economic climate, this is a cost-effective approach to starting a medical school that leverages existing resources and relies on the affluence of the UC system, Meyers added.
For the first two years of the program, students will be based at UC Davis, Meyers said. Their second two years will be spent working in community clinics in the San Joaquin Valley.
That means by 2013, students should be working in area clinics.
To qualify as places where students will work, clinics must meet certain standards, such as having adequate supervision over the medical students, Meyer explained.
The program's size is small to start with because it's new, Meyers said.
"The first year is often a difficult year," Meyers said. "We wanted to make sure we focused on the students. We think six is important to start a cohort. Then in the future we would expand."
Students accepted into the program must qualify to be accepted into UC Davis School of Medicine and also express an interest in serving the San Joaquin Valley. They should have experience working with diverse populations in underserved communities.
"We are committed to students who want to improve community health in that area," Meyers said.
Applications to the program will be accepted until Oct. 1.
The program prompted some criticism at the UC Regents meeting.
Dave Simmons, faculty adviser to the UC Regents, said he hopes UC Merced continues to put its focus on building the school's infrastructure and programs.
"Get its feet on the ground as a research institution and get sufficient facilities in place so it can hold its head high at the level of excellence of other UC campuses," he said.
UC Regent George Marcus warned UC Merced to not divert its attention too far away from its infrastructure.
Other UC regents lauded Meyers and UC Merced Chancellor Steve Kang for their efforts.
"I'm amazed you've come this far given the scarcity of resources," said UC Regent Eddie Island. "I urge you to redouble your efforts."
Congressman Dennis Cardoza said not only will this fulfill the need for health care workers in the San Joaquin Valley, it will also give an economic boost to the area.
The program already has 100 applicants, Meyers said.
Planning for the UC Merced medical school began before the school opened in 2005. The previous estimated start date for a medical education program was 2013.
"There are days when everyone is discouraged with the national economy, but there are rays of sunshine and hope that are coming out of this program," he said. "There's a billion dollars a year in leakage from the Central Valley in jobs. Over the long term, this will mean thousands of jobs and better health care for the citizens of our region."
And it will all start two years sooner than planned.
Reporter Jamie Oppenheim can be reached at (209) 385-2407 or firstname.lastname@example.org.