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New medical school will be Utah's 2nd

New medical school will be Utah's 2nd

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IVINS, Washington County — When Rocky Vista University welcomes its first class of students to its Ivins campus next summer, it will displace the University of Utah as the only medical school in the state.

Officials say the for-profit osteopathic medical school, which is constructing a $30 million campus in the far southwest corner of Utah, will focus on training a new generation of primary care physicians for rural and underserved areas.

"Most MD schools push specialty medical choices and they push research," said campus dean Dr. David Park. "Osteopathic medicine is different. We push primary care and community-based training, not necessarily pure research."

Park called the University of Utah School of Medicine an "excellent school," but said "one medical school just is not enough."

"They, as well as most MD schools, don’t produce enough primary care physicians," Park said.

Tuition at the for-profit school will run about $48,000 a year, according to admissions and marketing head Julie Rosenthal.

Colorado-based Rocky Vista University became the first modern for-profit medical school in the U.S. when it opened in 2006, and raised many eyebrows in the process. The school had its skeptics, including Dr. George Mychaskiw, an osteopathic physician and former chief of anesthesia at Blaire E. Batson Hospital for Children in Jackson, Mississippi.

Mychaskiw wrote a letter to The Journal of the American Osteopathic Association in 2008 blasting Rocky Vista University and calling for-profit medical education "an anathema to the larger medical community.”

Since then, a number of for-profit medical schools — both osteopathic and traditional — have opened in states like Idaho and California. And Mychaskiw has changed his tune — and since become the chief academic officer of a for-profit osteopathic medical school in New Mexico.

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"(Rocky Vista's University's) reputation has become solid," Mychaskiw said in a recent interview. "I think what it's done is proven the skeptics wrong."

Mychaskiw said he was impressed by the accreditation standards for for-profit medical schools. Like their nonprofit or public counterparts, for-profit medical schools must publish their residency placement numbers, and their graduates must pass board exams before they can start practicing.

Osteopathic medical schools also have to prove that they are creating new coveted residency spots, Myachaskiw said.

(Osteopathic physicians, called DOs, receive the same four years of medical training and residency as MDs, and are considered fully licensed physicians. Their differences are mainly philosophical; DOs tend to have a more holistic approach to medicine than MDs and are also trained in a form of musculoskeletal manipulation similar to chiropracty.)

Serving the underserved

In a "dusty, forgotten part" of New Mexico 40 miles north of the Mexican border, Mychaskiw said a for-profit school is also a way to offer medical education to people in underserved parts of the country that wouldn’t otherwise see this level of investment.

"To do this as a not-for-profit probably would have taken 15 years to raise the money, if you could even have done it in that period of time,” he said. "We're associated with New Mexico State University and they're trying to figure out how to cut $12 million out of their budget. It’s very hard to make ends meet right now as a traditional not-for-profit institution.”

Reducing physician shortage

Rocky Vista University officials say they also hope to reduce the physician shortage in Utah.

Utah ranks second-to-last in the nation for primary care doctors, with 65 active primary care physicians per 100,000 people compared to a national average of 91.1, according to 2015 American Medical Association data.

In rural Utah, the shortage is even worse: 56.5 primary care physicians per 100,000 people.

The solution may not be as easy as simply adding more medical students. Primary care doctors in Utah do not earn as much as specialists, and many graduates enter residency programs out-of-state and do not return to Utah.

University of Utah Health Care spokeswoman Kathy Wilets declined to talk about Rocky Vista University specifically but said that the residency shortage in Utah creates a "bottleneck" for educators trying to boost the number of doctors in the workforce.

"To address the physician shortage, we have to have more residency slots," Wilets said. "We're supportive of any efforts to do that."

Changing the medical landscape?

Terri Draper, spokeswoman for Intermountain Healthcare's southwest region, said she is unsure how Rocky Vista's entry to Utah will change the medical landscape.

"It's not a school like the University of Utah that has an established record, so it will be something that will need to demonstrate itself over time," she said.

However, Draper added that Intermountain is looking forward to welcoming the strongest students to its residency programs "regardless of which program they graduate from."

The arrival of Rocky Vista University has made one town, at any rate, very happy.

Photo: OZ Architecture
Photo: OZ Architecture

“It was a great moment,” said Ivins Mayor Chris Hart of the news earlier this year that the school had chosen the city of 7,500 people to plant its new campus. “The chills went up and down my back.”

He said the $30 million project is likely to be the city's largest, eclipsing Ivins’ other prides: the outdoor Tuacahn Center for the Arts, the upscale Red Mountain resort and the Southern Utah Veterans Home.

Community 'very excited'

Construction on the Rocky Vista University southern Utah campus is set to be finished by July 2017.

When complete, the campus will include a 100,000-square-foot school educational building, a 23,000-square-foot medical office and on-campus student housing, due to the shortage of rentals in the area, according to Rosenthal.

“To have 250 or 300 graduate students coming is certainly going to change the character of the place,” Hart said, adding that residents of the quiet retirement community are “very excited."

"Our one and only fast food place — and it's locally owned, it's not a franchise — is right across the street from the property,” he said. “And I'm sure those guys are just ecstatic.”

Email: dchen@deseretnews.com Twitter: DaphneChen_

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