Maine Med, Tufts to form doctor training program; Coordinators say it could help alleviate a shortage of physicians in Maine

JOSIE HUANG Staff Writer
Portland Press Herald (Maine)

Maine Medical Center and Tufts University today will announce a new physician-training program that could increase the state’s supply of doctors by reserving spots for Mainers and promoting the state as a good place to practice medicine.

The program will start accepting applications this fall for the 2009-2010 school year. Students will spend their first two years taking classes with other Tufts medical students in Boston. They will go to Maine for the final two years to do rotations at Maine Med in Portland or other hospitals.

With a plan to graduate 36 students a year – 20 of whom will be from Maine, or have a connection to the state – program coordinators say it could help alleviate a shortage of doctors being seen around the country. For the past three years, Maine hospitals and physician practices have reported at least 200 vacancies at any one time – a shortage expected to worsen as baby boomers age and doctors retire.

”The medical center sees it as having a special responsibility … to invest in the future of education of physicians, many of whom could stay in the state,” said Vince Conti, Maine Med’s president and chief executive officer.

The Tufts/Maine Med program will be just the second physician-training program in the state. The University of New England has an osteopathic school of medicine in Biddeford.

Ideally, Conti said, students from Maine would not have to pay more than what it costs to attend a medical school at a public university. His hope is that a combination of public and private dollars will cut the $50,000-plus yearly tuition for Tufts to less than $25,000.

Conti said Gov. John Baldacci had a positive reaction when the subject was discussed last summer. On Monday, the governor said he continues to support the program and is interested in ”exploring the opportunities” for funding.

Maine Med had also discussed similar partnerships with the University of Vermont and Dartmouth College, both of which send third-year students to the hospital. But Conti said Maine Med picked Tufts because of its strong reputation and ability to expand its class size from the current 170.

Dr. Michael Rosenblatt, dean of the Tufts medical school, said Tufts is interested in turning out the primary-care physicians needed in rural Maine.

He also noted the school’s long-standing ties to the state. From the 1930s to the early 1980s, federal funding allowed Tufts students to work at Maine hospitals, including Maine Med.

Today, more than 300 Tufts-educated doctors live in the state, including 60 on staff at Maine Med.

The partnership between Tufts and Maine Med represents a departure from the typical relationship between medical schools and teaching hospitals.

Maine Med will help pick the 36 students, who will spend the entirety of their third year and part of their fourth year at the hospital. Currently, students from other medical schools do rotations at the hospitals for several months at a time.

The hospital also will have an equal hand in developing a curriculum aimed at preparing students for careers in rural towns.

Dr. Peter Bates, Maine Med’s chief of medicine, said lessons will come from physicians who work in rural practices and small community hospitals. ”There are excellent teachers who can serve as models and motivate students,” he said.

When students graduate, they will receive a combined degree from Maine Med and Tufts. Hospital officials say the program jointly offered by the Cleveland Clinic and Case Western University is the only one they know of that also grants a combined diploma.

Dr. William Strassberg, president of the Maine Medical Association, said the new program will give students the exposure to Maine that will help them see it as a good place to live and practice.

He said the program will help Maine physicians who have trouble attracting and keeping some partners because of the costs of maintaining a Maine practice that may rely heavily on below-average payments for Medicaid patients.

The new program should not affect Maine Med’s relationship with other schools that use it as a teaching hospital.

UNE, for example, will continue its practice of sending medical students – along with students in its pharmacy and physician’s assistant programs – to Maine Med, said Jacque Carter, UNE provost and vice president for academic affairs.

But Maine Med’s affiliation with the University of Vermont College of Medicine will end in 2011, to make room for the Tufts students.

The Vermont school has been sending about 28 students a year to Maine Med, the most of any school. Carole Whitaker, a spokeswoman for the school, said Fletcher Allen Health Care in Burlington will be the school’s primary teaching hospital, and the medical college is ”exploring options” as it tries to find a replacement for Maine Med.

Conti said the costs of the program will become clearer as details are ironed out. While a new school would cost $100 million to build and staff, the partnership takes advantage of available resources, he said.
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