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October 1, 2014

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Q+A: BARBARA ATKINSON:

New dean calls med school a matter of priorities and return on investment

Barbara Atkinson

Barbara Atkinson

Barbara Atkinson has a bold vision for the first public, M.D.-granting medical school in Southern Nevada.

The new dean for the proposed UNLV School of Medicine comes to Las Vegas with a wealth of experience in the fields of medicine and medical education. Between 2002 and 2012, Atkinson, 71, was the executive vice chancellor and dean of the University of Kansas School of Medicine.

Like Nevada, Kansas faced a physician shortage. Under Atkinson’s leadership, the University of Kansas Medical Center expanded campuses in Salina and Wichita, recruited renowned faculty and built new academic buildings at its main campus in Kansas City.

As UNLV’s “planning dean,” Atkinson will be charged with bringing to life the community’s vision for a top-notch medical school that produces doctors who stay in Nevada and helps in Southern Nevada’s economic diversification efforts. Atkinson says she’s excited for the challenge.

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Nevada ranks 46th nationally in the number of doctors per capita (71.2 primary care physicians per 100,000 Nevadans). Some see a UNLV medical school as a solution. What do you think?

We realized early on when I was in Kansas that there was a major physician shortage, although not as major as in Las Vegas. Primary care in rural areas and sub-specialty programs were lacking. We decided to expand the number of medical students, not just in Kansas City, where we already had a major medical school, but to put more in Wichita and start a small campus in Salina. We increased the number of medical students statewide from about 175 per class to 220 per class. It clearly made a big impact in keeping physicians in Kansas.

Some folks in Las Vegas believe Nevada should focus its efforts on expanding medical residencies to solve the doctor shortage. What do you think about that?

We need both. There’s absolutely no question we need more medical students to stay in the state, and to do that, we need more Graduate Medical Education spots, especially in primary care and specialty and sub-specialty positions that don’t exist here at all. Most students today go to other states because there aren’t any specialty programs here. It’s clearly not an either/or. Both are needed. In Kansas, we added more than 50 residencies at the same time as we expanded our medical school.

A big part of your new job is raising capital funding for new medical school buildings. What’s your track record with fundraising?

In Kansas, that was one of my successes. We fundraised for programs and something like 30 new endowed professorships. We were able to bring a National Cancer Institute-designated center to the region, when people were leaving Kansas City to get specialized treatment before. It took 10 years and half a billion dollars, but we got one two years ago. It was done with a combination of support from the state of Kansas, taxes and private philanthropy. Building a medical school in Las Vegas will take a combination of funds like that.

With the recession ravaging Nevada, there doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of money for new academic buildings. How do you plan to persuade lawmakers and the public to build a second medical school in the state?

I think it’s a matter of talking to people about priorities and the return on investment. Health care is an economic sector that’s underrepresented in Las Vegas. If you can prove to people that it will be good for the region and improve health care and access, then people really get on board and want to help. We need to talk to people and figure out the best way of doing it. I don’t think it’s possible to expect private philanthropy to do it all.

When do you think UNLV can open its medical school?

We’re still working on a time frame. The accreditation process takes three years at minimum, but it’s really a push. Five years might be more likely. It depends on how fast you can recruit people, and that depends on how fast you can raise the money. You have to be ready to admit students before accreditation bodies let you do it. I think it’s reasonable to start with a class of 60 students and increase to 120 as soon as we have a medical education building built. In the future, I’d like to see 180 students graduate per class.

Nevada’s colleges and universities have been criticized for historically failing to attract research grants from the National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. How do you plan to increase federal research dollars in Nevada?

It’s simple. You recruit faculty who bring grants and new and exciting techniques. They’re very expensive — each of those faculty members, they take a minimum of $1 million to recruit — but they’re very important in the long run. They generate more money than the investment you put in the first place. We need more clinical and translational (applied) research, linking basic science to finding a cure. In Kansas, we were able to almost double the research funding, which significantly impacted the ranking of the medical school.

What’s your vision for the UNLV School of Medicine?

I see a first-class academic medical center here that’s trying to get the very best of Nevada students and taking the best students from anywhere we can find them. A center that’s trying to get good residencies so that students want to stay in Nevada and practice here when they finish, and putting them in areas that are of need. In this region, there’s a need for psychiatrists and behavioral specialists, neuroscience, cancer treatment and geriatrics. There are some real opportunities here.

You retired in 2012 after a decade at the University of Kansas. What motivated you to return to medical education?

I enjoyed being retired, but when I got the call about this opportunity, I was enticed out of retirement. The leadership and the people at UNLV really convinced me. I’m just really excited about starting a new medical school, the whole region and its potential. I wouldn’t be here if I weren’t. I believe the community is behind this and would be supportive. We can really make this happen. I guarantee I’m going to be working hard to make it happen.

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