Editorial: Med school faces test this week

The campaign to create a Valley medical school will face a significant test Wednesday and Thursday during a University of California Board of Regents meeting at the UCLA campus.

If the regents agree to allow UC Merced to continue the planning process, there will be 12 to 15 additional months of planning and fundraising before a formal proposal is submitted. The goal is to enroll the first 32 medical students from 2013 to 2015.

It is critical to the future of the Valley's health care that supporters impress the regents with their arguments for a regional medical school. But unlike college exams, outside help is not only encouraged but required.

The board must understand that the people they represent are behind this effort. A parade of supporters is lining up, including many of the Valley's most influential academic, medical, governmental organizations. Elected officials around the state heard our story this week, as more than a dozen people from the 75-member Valley Coalition for UC Merced Medical School took a road trip to meet with Sacramento lawmakers.

The prognosis for a Valley medical school is cautiously optimistic, judging from the commitments already received. Included among the fans of the idea is Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. There are huge financial barriers to be overcome. But we hope the passion with which Valley supporters are carrying this message to the state's leaders is sinking in -- not just that we desperately need more physicians, which we do, but that the Valley has to be contended with, that this is an up-and-coming region with high population growth, that we are not to be ignored.

Then there is the power of the basic facts:

California needs thousands more physicians, and the San Joaquin Valley has one of the lowest counts of doctors per population. Especially acute is the shortage of specialists. The Valley has 51% per capita fewer specialists in practice than California as a whole.

An estimated $845 million is lost to the Valley economy because patients have to go to the Bay Area or Southern California for advanced medical care.

Physicians tend to stay and practice in the areas in which they are trained and do their residencies.

The model proposed for UC Merced is less costly than building a huge teaching hospital. Medical students would take their first two years of classes on campus, then do their clinical training at hospitals around the Valley. Some of the best physicians practicing in the Valley could end up as their teachers. Teleconferencing and other technology make this a reasonable approach.

Many of the physicians trained at the medical school likely would come from the Valley's diverse population. Young people growing up here could see becoming a doctor as an attainable career goal.

This is not just a job for the academics and activists. This is a project every Valley family can help with by letting the Board of Regents know it's important. Purpose, mission, passion are communicable. The burning desire for the medical care we deserve in the Valley is one fever we want to spread.