UC Merced medical school a ways off, but still training doctors

01/08/2014 8:06 PM

01/08/2014 10:27 PM

While a medical school at UC Merced is years away, the university is three years deep into a program training doctors with hopes that they’ll stick around after they graduate.

UC Merced’s San Joaquin Valley Program in Medical Education, also called PRIME, is a joint program among UC Merced; UC Davis School of Medicine; and the University of California, San Francisco, Fresno Medical Education Program. It enrolled its first UC Merced students in 2011.

“It’s a huge accomplishment, right now, that we can say we are training physicians in the San Joaquin Valley for the San Joaquin Valley,” said Brandy Ramos Nikaido, director of external relations and special projects for UC Merced.

Nikaido said the plans to open a full-fledged medical school at UC Merced are progressing, but it’s too early to estimate an opening date. The process is a long and expensive one, she said. It does not help the public university’s cause that the state saw budget deficits year after year in the late 2000s.

In the meantime, the school moves forward on educating doctors.

Students admitted to the program spend their first two years at the UC Davis campus in Sacramento. The groups’ third and fourth years are spent treating patients under the supervision of doctors at San Joaquin Valley clinics and hospitals.

There are 17 students enrolled in the UC Merced medical program, with a new crop coming in the fall. One requirement for students before being admitted to the program is a knowledge of and connection to the Valley, Nikaido said.

The program kicked off after getting a $5 million grant from the United Health Foundation in 2006.

The program’s inaugural group of medical students is now at UCSF Fresno, where their training includes a six-month clinical course working with physicians in family and community medicine, internal medicine and psychiatry. The training puts students to work in rural and other communities where doctors are needed, Nikaido said.

“These are students who have already expressed an interest in working with underserved communities, especially in the San Joaquin Valley,” she said.

A 2008 California Healthcare Foundation study found that the state has a shortage of physicians in the San Joaquin Valley.

California, with a population of 38,246,598, had 66,480 patient care doctors in 2008. That’s 174 doctors per 100,000 people. Many valley counties were below the state rate.

Merced County has a total of 212 doctors, or 81 patient care doctors for every 100,000 people. Stanislaus County and Fresno County fared better but still below the state rate with 142 and 135 doctors per 100,000 people, respectively.

From the beginning, UC Merced was meant to be a place of higher education that would address the needs of the Valley.

UCSF Fresno Center for Medical Education and Research has been training physicians in the San Joaquin Valley since 1975, said Associate Dean Dr. Joan Voris. About 40 percent of the physicians who graduate from the program stay in the region, she said.

Since those graduates stay in the Valley, Voris said, their research addresses health issues important to the area.

“PRIME is a cost-effective and expedient way to ramp up medical expertise in the region right here, right now,” Voris said in an email.

Voris also praised the efforts of area leaders looking to add funding to the program, saying, “We thank the legislators for their recognition of our efforts.”

State Sen. Anthony Cannella, R-Ceres, announced this week he introduced a bill to help speed up the process of establishing a medical school at UC Merced. He said the Valley is “disproportionately” affected by the physician shortage.

“SB 841 will seek to end this unnecessary disparity by strengthening existing UC medical programs that provide health care services to Valley residents while accelerating the effort for a UC Merced medical school,” Cannella said in a news release.

The bill has received bipartisan support with Sen. Cathleen Galgiani, D-Stockton, and Assemblyman Adam Gray, D-Merced, signing on as principal co-authors.

The bill calls for $1 million to fund a two-year planning effort for the medical school on the Merced campus, according to Jeff Macedo, a spokesman for Cannella. It would also continue funding for the San Joaquin Valley program, and allow it to double enrollment, with $1.85 million, Macedo said.

UC Merced issued a statement about the legislation: “While this bill is still very early in the legislative process, we truly appreciate the legislators’ support of our campus and region, and we look forward to continue working together to improve the quality of health and health care in the San Joaquin Valley.”

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