Legislative Issues: Medical school expansion could keep more physicians in Utah

By: Carlos Mayorga

With Utah’s consistently high birthrate, people moving into the state and more Utahns projected to retire in the coming years, the demand for more physicians is increasing fast. As the Utah State Legislative session begins next week, officials at the U’s School of Medicine say they are ready to respond to those needs.

“If the state wants us to expand our medical school, we’re prepared to do so,” said David Bjorkman, dean of the School of Medicine. “We can’t afford to do it, but if the state wants us to address the shortage we have the facilities to do it.”

The U will lobby the legislature for $10 million to expand the School of Medicine. The funding request will not come in the form of a bill but could be part of the state’s appropriations. Utah is one of the states hit hardest by a physician shortage that has affected the nation. Only 165 physicians are available per 100,000 Utahns, placing Utah near the bottom of all states at 44th in the country.

States with a lower ranking than Utah, such as Idaho and Wyoming, don’t have medical schools, making it even more important that the U addresses the shortage, Bjorkman said.

“We have a physician shortage now in some specialty areas, and as we look ahead, we will see more population growth and more retirees,” said Kim Wirthlin, U vice president for government relations. “In order to be where we need to be, we need to update technology and bring in new students. That needs to be a high priority for the state.”

The school hasn’t had the capacity to expand the program for more than 30 years.

The Spencer F. and Cleone P. Eccles Health Sciences Education Building, which opened in 2005, is principally used for instruction and can provide for an increase in enrollment and for additional faculty if the legislature decides to grant the U funding.

“We are the only school of medicine in the state, and we are willing to expand 30 percent if the state is willing to fund it,” Wirthlin said.

David Squire, executive director of the Utah Medical Education Council, said that as Utah’s population continues to age, the demand for health care will increase because the elderly use health care services twice as much as people in younger age brackets.

In addition to bringing in more students, the U must increase residency programs, Squire said. Unless the medical school increases the number of resident physicians, students will have to leave the state. About 60 percent of students who leave to do a residency in another state don’t come back, he said.

“If we increase medical students and not residency, they will leave the state and we will have to entice them to come back,” Squire said. “Expanding classes are not enough. We need to increase residency as well.”

The U medical school needs to increase residency programs, but that will be an issue the school will have to tackle in the future, Bjorkman said.

Sen. Ross Romero, D-Salt Lake City, said he is not sure whether there will be money available for all the projects at the U but that the legislature recognizes the need for more physicians and nurses.

The U is asking for money in several other areas, such as $28 million to fund the renovation of the David Eccles School of Business.

“The obstacle to any funding is there is never enough to meet everyone’s needs, so it comes down to how high a priority this is to the state,” Wirthlin said.

During the upcoming legislative session, “lots of discussion” will go toward addressing health care issues, in particular Gov. Jon Huntsman’s health system reform legislation, Romero said.

According to Huntsman’s plan, its purpose is to control health care costs, increase public access to health insurance and health care and “encourage wellness.”

The School of Medicine is ready to step up to help address the physician shortage, provided the state grant funding, Bjorkman said.

“We’re willing to step up and do our part,” he said. “It’s not a higher education issue, but a health issue. We think it’s something that needs to be considered.”
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