LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) - It was just a casual lunch conversation with his mother and his friend, but it sent Kyle Parker on a mission.
Parker, then the chairman of the board of the Fort Smith Regional Healthcare Foundation, was trying to figure out how to best use more than $60 million the foundation had in the bank. The money was accumulated after Sparks Health System of Fort Smith was purchased for $138 million by Health Management Associates of Naples, Florida, in 2009, Arkansas Business reported (https://bit.ly/1CSIOil ).
“We were a foundation set up for health purposes,” Parker said. “We had a significant amount of money. We started looking at ways we could make the biggest impact, not just for the region but for the state of Arkansas.”
But how? That was the question Parker asked Melody Trimble, who was CEO of Sparks until 2012 when she was promoted to president of HMA’s Southern & Western Group.
“It was just a nice-to-see-you kind of lunch,” Parker said. “I asked Melody, ‘What is something we could do for the region?’ Without hesitation she said, ‘Build a DO medical school.’”
So that’s what Parker is doing.
Parker and fellow board members spent more than a year researching the feasibility of building a college of osteopathic medicine - whose graduates are called DOs for doctors of osteopathy - before publicly announcing their plans last December.
By then, Arkansas State University at Jonesboro had already announced a similar idea. But instead of building a College of Osteopathic Medicine from scratch, the university has partnered with the New York Institute of Technology.
NYIT’s COM campus in Old Westbury, New York - one of about 30 DO schools in the country - has more than 1,100 students. The target enrollment for the school located at ASU is more modest at 115 students per year.
ASU Chancellor Tim Hudson announced in June 2013 the school’s plan to explore the possibility of opening a COM. Feasibility studies showed a great need for additional physicians in the Delta region on the state, and ASU said the COM would also generate approximately $70 million in economic activity in northeast Arkansas.
NYIT would be fully responsible for the operation of the school, which would be housed at ASU’s Wilson Hall, which the university will spend $4 million renovating. The Arkansas Higher Education Coordinating Board gave NYIT certification for the additional site earlier this summer.
According to ASU’s research, osteopathic medicine is a fast-growing field, increasing from 44,918 doctors in 2000 to approximately 80,000 in 2012. There are 319 licensed DOs in Arkansas.
Arkansas is ranked 48th nationally in physicians per capita, according to a 2010 study by the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences’ Center for Rural Health. Parker said western Arkansas is the most underserved per capita in the state. “They have a hard time recruiting physicians,” Parker said. “If you want to help more people, we need more doctors.”
The idea was approved by the foundation, which agreed to spend $58 million on the project. The Fort Chaffee Redevelopment Authority donated 200 acres for the site of the college, and an anonymous benefactor donated another $14 million.
Groundwork has already started on site, which will include a 100,000-square-foot main building and several other buildings with an expected price tag of approximately $32 million. Parker, now the CEO of the newly named Arkansas Colleges of Health Education, said the opening date has been moved up a year to August 2016, and the college hired Ken Heiles as dean in May.
Parker said the school has more than $100 million in assets and expects to have 150 students in each class year. Annual tuition will be $43,000 and the college has promised tuition won’t go up for at least 10 years.
More importantly, college officials and the newly hired Heiles have contacted hospitals and clinics, not just in the area but throughout the state, to set up clinical and residency programs that are vital to a medical school’s viability. Heiles, in particular, has been active in arranging residency programs at rural hospitals and clinics that haven’t had them in the past.
Research has shown that 70 percent of physicians stay on at the medical facility where they served their residency. That makes it vital, Heiles said, to expose underserved rural areas to resident physicians.
“That’s something very grassroots,” said Heiles, who added that a similar program in Texas has been successful. “It’s really needed in Arkansas. If we can populate it from Day 1, the chances of (students) staying or going back is much stronger.”
Arkansas State and NYIT have done the same legwork. Jeff Hankins, vice president of communications and economic development for the ASU System, said hospitals and clinics have been very supportive of helping with clinicals and residencies.
The university will host a GME Summit on Oct. 16 in Jonesboro with officials from NYIT, ASU and Heiles from the ACHE scheduled to attend.
GME, which stands for graduate medical education, is a critical component of a medical school’s success.
Heiles believes the Fort Smith COM will easily fill its goal of 150 students annually, which ACHE wants to be predominantly from the state and western Oklahoma. Hankins believes NYIT’s national reputation and ability to attract students from across the country will make the Jonesboro COM successful.
Officials with both proposed schools agree that increasing the number of physicians in the state is a must.
Frazier Edwards, the executive director of the Arkansas Osteopathic Medicine Association, said Oklahoma had a similar number of DOs before an osteopathic college merged with Oklahoma State in 1988, and now that state has more than 3,000 osteopathic physicians.
The same thing could happen in Arkansas - and needs to, Edwards said.
“Arkansas has a lot of virgin territory,” Edwards said. “Arkansas needs more primary care physicians in rural areas. To have other options for access to care is a good thing. Those rural areas need those physicians.”
Another asset the college will have is a program promised by the Degen Foundation of Fort Smith.
Degen - formerly the Sparks Foundation - has committed to paying hospitals and clinics the approximately $125,000 it costs to host a resident so that no graduate of the ACHE misses out on a residency. (Approximately 97 percent of graduates get residencies on their own, but those who don’t would otherwise have to wait a year before trying again.)
“Any student who comes into our school will pay a large amount of tuition, and if they can’t become a practicing physician, then we have both wasted their money and wasted our money,” said Tom Webb, Degen’s executive director, who served 16 years on the Sparks board of directors. “This isn’t idle talk. This is us living our mission.
That is what is driving everything we do.
“We wanted to find something to move the needle. It doesn’t do anybody any good if we produce four-year students who can’t practice medicine.”
In February, Dr. Dan Rahn the chancellor of UAMS, said the state needs more residency slots rather than medical schools.
Heiles said he agreed with Rahn about the importance of residency programs, and that is why the ACHE was working so hard to make sure its graduates would have postgraduate options. But the state needs physicians, especially primary care physicians, an area that a majority of DOs gravitate to, Heiles said.
The need for physicians will only grow as more people become insured through the Affordable Care Act.
“The chancellor is correct,” Heiles said. “We do need more residency slots.
“We’re hoping to alleviate a problem. I would like to see more physicians going into primary care, both MD and DO.”
While the dirt turns, Parker and Heiles are working on getting the ACHE fully accredited. It’s a long, laborious process with much paperwork, but Parker is confident there will be no major problems in the college opening in August 2016.
Parker said the college will have 28 full-time employees after it starts hiring after the start of 2015. He predicts the college will provide $100 million in economic stimulus to the region every year.
Parker said the college won’t have any problem filling its quota of 150 students each year because there are currently 3,500 applicants for every 150 slots at medical schools nationwide. Parker said the college will focus primarily on Arkansas pre-med students because they would be more likely to stay in state to practice.
Parker said the state’s only current medical school, UAMS, is required to take a certain number of students from each congressional district in the state. Those who miss that cut would be welcomed at ACHE.
“There are plenty of students in Arkansas to fill our 150,” Parker said. “I’m not naive to think that all (graduates) will stay in Arkansas. It depends on who we’re admitting, if we get the right students to begin with.”
Information from: Arkansas Business, https://www.arkansasbusiness.com
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