Now real work begins on UC Merced medical school

After years of lobbying and planning, those who want to bring a medical school to UC Merced won a crucial victory last week -- and now the real work begins.

After years of lobbying and planning, those who want to bring a medical school to UC Merced won a crucial victory last week -- and now the real work begins.

A curriculum must now be developed for the school and money raised to support a program that supporters say would help bring much-needed doctors to the San Joaquin Valley. It would include clinical training in Fresno.

University of California regents gave UC Merced a stamp of approval last week, allowing planning for a new school of medicine to continue.

The green light marked a milestone for supporters in the Valley, but their efforts are far from over. Even under the best circumstances, it could be five years before the first medical students start classes.

The immediate need is money.

University of California at Merced needs between $200,000 to $300,000 for planning, said Bryn Forhan, co-chair of the Valley Coalition for UC Merced Medical School.

That is critical, because supporters must be able to show regents that "we're going to have the resources to create a quality UC medical school," said Maria Pallavicini, UC Merced's dean of natural sciences.

People from Stockton to Bakersfield will need to support it, Pallavicini said. And she is looking to "Fresno to be very actively involved."

UC Merced officials hope to return to the regents in 12 to 18 months with a detailed business plan and ask for formal approval for the medical school, Pallavicini said.

Pallavicini said the state's shaky economy will make fundraising a challenge in the short term. In the long term, Forhan said, fundraising will involve commitments in the tens of millions of dollars. The coalition will meet soon to map a fundraising and planning strategy for the next year, she said.

The coalition was created by Reps. Jim Costa, D-Fresno, and Dennis Cardoza, D-Merced. It includes about 140 people from health care, education, business, agriculture and government from an eight-county region.

Considering the state's budget problems, Costa said the coalition will need to look elsewhere for money. He said he hopes a higher-education bond will be on the ballot this fall. One goal would be to get some of the bond proceeds dedicated to the planning and development of the medical school at Merced, he said.

Absent a bond measure, "there will be no opportunity to get any funding this year" for planning purposes, Costa said.

Supporters say a medical school in the Valley is needed to alleviate a doctor shortage that is becoming critical.

Valley residents can wait weeks or months to see a doctor, particularly one who specializes in certain areas of medicine where doctor shortages are greatest.

The hope is that medical students trained in the Valley will stay in the region to practice.

Today, students preparing for careers in medicine at Fresno State have no choice but to leave the Valley to continue their education.

Albert Aguilera, a senior at California State University, Fresno, plans a career in community health. UC Merced is 20 minutes from his parents' home. He is considering the University of Chicago for medical school.

"I would love to stay ... but unfortunately there's nothing in the Central Valley," Aguilera said.

Under UC Merced's proposal, medical students would take their first two years of classes on the Merced campus. For their third and fourth years, they would go to University of California at San Francisco at Fresno for clinical training. UCSF-Fresno currently trains medical-school graduates in several fields, including emergency medicine and family practice.

Business leaders would like to see a medical school in the Valley, said Al Smith, chief executive officer of the Fresno Chamber of Commerce.

"It makes sense to train our own and keep them here," he said.