Las Vegas Sun

September 16, 2019

Currently: 95° — Complete forecast

Guest column:

Training the next generation of doctors is critical to improving Nevadans’ health

Not long ago, I had the privilege of making my first visit to the new UNLV School of Medicine. It was immensely gratifying to witness firsthand the leadership, faculty and students embracing change — in the way medical students are taught and trained and in the school’s commitment to reimagining the way tomorrow’s physicians will care for their future patients.

While there is a worsening doctor shortage across America, the need for physicians is particularly acute in Southern Nevada. The UNLV School of Medicine is working to address this local shortage by accepting only students who are from Nevada or who have strong ties to the area, as we know that medical students who are attached to the city from which they graduate are more likely to stay and practice there.

The UNLV School of Medicine is recruiting the brightest local students and embedding them in the community from the very start of their medical education. Shortly after arriving on campus, students are required to fan out in groups of five or six into economically challenged neighborhoods where, for the next several months, they educate residents about how they can get better access to medical care, public transportation and healthy food. And these students will maintain these ties to the community throughout their four years of medical school by volunteering at shelters and soup kitchens. In these venues, students not only get a firsthand look at a community’s needs, they experience what it is like to provide care to those who need it most.

This level of awareness serves as a foundation for becoming knowledgeable, compassionate physicians who are connected to the communities they serve.

In addition, I was gratified to see the diversity of the student population. Twenty-five percent of the students in the medical school’s initial two classes are the first in their families to attend college, and 23% are from populations traditionally underrepresented in medicine. After becoming doctors, these young people will bring important diverse perspectives that will benefit the care of their patients.

As one of the nation’s newest medical schools, the UNLV School of Medicine epitomizes the profound shifts we are seeing in medical education, such as moving to more active, problem-based learning, rather than teaching through lectures.

This spring, 58 members of the school’s charter class finished their second year of medical school, getting invaluable experience shadowing doctors performing cutting-edge procedures in local hospitals and clinics. The school also is using advanced technology and equipment to foster medical student learning, as well as emphasizing the communication skills that are essential to help these future physicians connect with patients and serve their communities with compassion and humility.

Under the leadership of founding dean Dr. Barbara Atkinson, the faculty has achieved remarkable success through these demanding first months. Generous donors also have stepped forward to provide scholarships to every student in the school’s first three classes to relieve their debt burden. As the school continues to grow into a vibrant center of medical education and research, the community must continue its support. On the near horizon, the school will require resources to move out of its temporary quarters and establish permanent roots in the community, and in time, increase its class size.

As we look to the next generation of physicians and their role in improving the health of their communities, the long-term success of UNLV School of Medicine will depend on collaboration with local health systems. To achieve this, Las Vegas leaders and residents must continue to work with their federal legislators to increase the number of residency training slots. With a national shortage of up to 120,000 physicians projected by 2032, and with Nevada having among the nation’s lowest per capita concentrations of physicians, more residency training positions will help ensure there are enough physicians to meet the health care needs of Nevadans. After witnessing the energy and insight at the UNLV School of Medicine and among its community supporters, I believe the future care of Nevadans is in very good hands.

Dr. Darrell Kirch has been president and CEO of the Association of American Medical Colleges since 2006. A trained psychiatrist and neuroscientist, he’s also held senior administrative positions at several prominent medical colleges.