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November 17, 2018

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Analysis: Expert cautions against current plan for UNLV med school

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Image courtesy of TSK Architects / Co Architects

The future home of the UNLV School of Medicine.

A two-phase plan to build out the UNLV Medical School was created as a way to move the school forward, but it could become a major setback that turns off donors and results in a half-finished, lackluster institution.

That was the warning today from Pennsylvania-based consultant Paul Umbach, who has been studying the UNLV school since 2013 and recently examined the two-phase plan after it was rolled out in August. Umbach issued the findings of his report during a community conversation organized by The Lincy Institute at UNLV.

The current plan calls for the construction of a $57 million, 50,000-square-foot medical school/health sciences library building that would be shared by students in the med school, the UNLV School of Dentistry and others. That would be followed by a $180 million, 182,000-square building to house teaching facilities.

The approach emerged after a fallout between major donors and state higher-education officials over the pressured departure of former UNLV President Len Jessup this past spring, which prompted some donors who strongly supported Jessup to either withdraw or reconsider commitments to the school.

But while the first phase would be built with $25 million in state funding and a $25 million gift from an anonymous donor, the major donors haven’t embraced the idea of starting with a library and then building out. No additional donations have come in, which was a key concern for Umbach.

“Building 2s sometimes don’t happen,” he said. “If donors don’t believe we’re moving in the right direction — if they’re not happy about Building 1 — why would they be excited about getting behind Building 2?”

Later, the anonymous donor, who was in the audience, underscored that point.

“You’re not going to get donors to join, not after what we’ve seen over the past year,” she said. “No matter how much lipstick you put on this pig, it’s not going to happen. If phase one’s all you get, it’s over.”

Umbach envisioned a new plan that would expand and revise the first phase to include classroom space, while engaging donors to get moving on the second phase.

“We want the top, most innovative medical education facility in Las Vegas, not one that is below where the other ones are,” Umbach told an audience of about 50 people. “We’re already a fifth of the way through the 21st century. When this is built, we’ll be a quarter of the way through, and we don’t want to be saddled with facilities that aren’t at the Nth degree of where we want to go.”

The UNLV Medical School currently has facilities for 60-member classes in its facilities in the UMC complex, but long-range plans call for it to expand to at least 120 members per class to help address a shortage of physicians in Southern Nevada.

Citing information from other medical schools nationwide, Umbach said advancements in technology were reducing the need for large libraries, with information now being available anywhere via computers and smart devices. That being the case, he said, several schools were considering reducing the size of their library spaces and repurposing those areas to support classrooms and labs incorporating the latest technology.

Umbach said that although it would be worthwhile for UNLV to create the sciences library building, waiting to get started on the education building could cause the university to fall far behind other schools on the technology curve. Another concern is that the school’s accreditation would be placed at risk if the shared library facilities were used more by students from other schools than from the med school.

Under Umbach’s recommendation, the goal would be to open both buildings in 2022.

Otherwise, Umbach said, “you run the risk of being in a situation where you’re behind the eight-ball for a long, long time and will probably never catch up with the kind of medical education program that’s needed in Las Vegas.

Umbach is founder and president of Tripp Umbach, which has provided consulting for more than 30 new medical schools since 2002.

Elsewhere in the presentation, Lincy’s executive director offered a personal story showing the need for the school.

Robert Lang suffered a virus that moved into his heart this year, weakening it to the point where he found himself fighting for his life at UCLA’s medical school. There, he was treated with a machine that removed his blood, oxygenated it and pumped it back into his body — essentially doing the work that his heart and lungs were incapable of doing.

That machine is available in all but two of the nation’s 30 largest cities, Lang said. One is Las Vegas, where the nearest machine is 232 miles away. But in the other, Charlotte, N.C., there are five machines within less than 140 miles.

Lang, a strong advocate for development of the UNLV Medical School not only as Lincy’s director but as the head of Brookings Mountain West, also gave a history of the school showing that it had faced strong opposition by influential state lawmakers, regents and NSHE officials since its inception. Amid north-south political partisanship, he said, Northern Nevada interests saw the school as a threat to UNR’s medical school.

Lang’s conclusion: poor university oversight has put Las Vegas at risk — as evidenced by his experience at UCLA as one example.

Editor’s note: This analysis has been revised to correct the spelling of Umbach’s name.