PROVO — Citing a need to improve the physician-to-patient ratio in the state, educators on Tuesday announced plans for a new medical school in Utah County, to be called the Noorda College of Osteopathic Medicine, beginning in 2021.
The school is named for the Ray and Tye Noorda Foundation, the namesake charitable organization for the Novell founder and his wife that recently committed to pay $50 million toward launching the school.
The owner of Provo's Rocky Mountain University of Health Professions, a corporation called Wasatch Educational, will be the owner and operator of the new school.
"We envision this not to be the standard, mediocre, middle-of-the-road medical school," Richard Nielsen, vice president of the company, told the Deseret News. "We look at this and we're excited about the possibility of this becoming … the most premiere, world-class institution in the United States exclusively focusing on graduate health care programs."
Nielsen said Wasatch Educational would prefer to build the campus in south Provo on 24 acres on the northwestern portion of existing East Bay Golf Course, but approval is still needed from the city. Other locations throughout Utah County are also being considered. The city is likely to make a decision in two to three months, Nielsen said.
The plan is to enroll 150 students per year at Noorda College for the first four years, then 175 per year after that. Students will graduate as fully licensed general practice physicians, which is critically important for Utah's health care system that ranks second to last in the ratio of primary care physicians to residents, Nielsen said.
"We're at the bottom of the pile when it comes to access to care," he said.
Because of a lack of enrollment slots in the state, an estimated 400 students seeking to attend medical school leave Utah each year, "and most of them never come back," Nielsen said. He added that 63 percent of the physicians working in Utah were recruited from out of state.
"There's a significant demand of students who want to apply to medical school in Utah, and there's not enough seats for those students," Nielsen said.
Val Hale, executive director of the Governor's Office of Economic Development, was on hand to congratulate Wasatch Educational on its announcement at a press conference Tuesday inside Provo Towne Centre mall.
"This is going to have a huge impact on our valley, economically and otherwise," Hale said. "Hopefully we’ll get more (medical students) to stay here and not only go to school but to practice here."
Noorda College of Osteopathic Medicine will be the second for-profit medical school in Utah, joining Rocky Vista University, a school that opened a campus this year in Ivins, Washington County. The University of Utah's sprawling program is the only public medical school in the state.
Under Wasatch Educational's plan, Rocky Mountain University of Health Professions would move from its current property to become adjacent to the school of medicine in 2024.
Though owned by the same corporation, Nielsen said the university — which offers post-graduate degrees in nursing, health science, occupational therapy, physical therapy and other fields — will operate as an independent institution, and that the governing board overseeing the medical school will be separate.
Wasatch Educational has been studying the feasibility of a medical school in Utah since 2010, according to Nielsen. In 2013, the group decided not only that such a venture could be successful, but that they were the ones in a position to do it, he said.
Nielsen said Wasatch Educational is continuing to recruit additional financial backers to get the effort off the ground and that "another investor has put $20 million into the medical school and also another $50 million for the construction project itself." But he said he isn't yet at liberty to disclose that backer's identity.
It was last year that Wasatch Educational secured its funding from the Ray and Tye Noorda Foundation after several months of negotiations.
"It’s truly an amazing day because of all the work that we got to see that went into this project," said Andy Noorda, son of Ray and Tye Noorda and a member of their namesake foundation's board of trustees. "We argued a lot of stuff. … We had to work out a lot of the details."
Noorda became emotional as he described his own father's reason for retaining Utah as the home of Novell, a trailblazing tech company, rather than move it to Silicon Valley as he had considered doing.
"As a young man who just received his engineering degree, he felt like he had to leave the state to leave to work and he shared with me that (it) was a very sad thing for him and his family," Noorda said. "When I think about what was the intent behind … building this huge company (in Utah), it all came back for family for him."
Noorda hopes the new medical school will help more aspiring physicians continue their studies in Utah.
"I’m kind of tearing up over here, looking at what the future will bring to this (school). … I think this industry is going to grow tremendously and a lot of kids will stay home," he said.
Building the medical school on existing East Bay Golf Course would require the relocation of holes, 10, 11 and 12, Nielsen said, though he contends the course would actually improve after being redone. It's possible an additional three holes could be moved in 2033 after a 14 acre expansion under Wasatch Educational's plan.
Rona Rahlf, president of the Utah Valley Chamber of Commerce, was on hand to support the medical school being built in south Provo. She said there has been some "fuss" in the community over the proposed location, but that the campus could be a crucial element needed "to bring energy and life back to this part of Provo."
Scott Bowles, general manager of Provo Towne Centre, said the shopping center is actively supportive of bringing the medical school to south Provo, an area of the city that he said needs "a punch in the arm" economically.
"Business attracts business," he said.
The mall is at the beginning stage of its own face-lift and restructuring, expected to take three to five years.
Nielsen estimated the building of the Noorda College of Osteopathic Medicine would bring with it 121 education jobs and 236 construction jobs.
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