Medical training may be intensified

Boosting number of doctors, med students could be catalyst for UT medical school in Austin

By Colin Pope and Mary Alice Kaspar
Austin Business Journal Staff
August 25, 2003

The University of Texas -- the backbone of Austin's medical education system -- is in talks with local health care providers about significantly boosting the number of doctors and medical students trained at Austin hospitals and clinics.

The intent is to fortify two crucial components of the Austin economy: scientific research and health care. Austin could be laying the groundwork for the establishment of a UT-affiliated medical school here, according to those taking part in the discussions.

Many say the lack of a medical school holds the Austin area back in its efforts to develop a strong, diversified biotechnology industry. However, intensifying efforts to further link the UT System with players in the health care industry might help the region draw more tip-top talent and research funding -- thus boosting Austin's ability to commercialize potential scientific breakthroughs.

The UT System, Seton Healthcare Network, St. David's HealthCare Partnership, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and the Texas Department of Health are looking at ways of expanding medical education here. There's also talk of UT's flagship Austin campus joining forces with the UT Medical Branch in Galveston to offer M.D. and Ph.D. degree programs.

"In Austin, there is a fair amount of undergraduate education going on ... but recently it's become clear that there is a concerted desire to expand medical education here," says Jon Foster, president and CEO of St. David's.

"We're all -- Seton, St. David's, the VA and the state -- having joint discussions on where that expansion should happen, asking questions like who has the capacity and who has the experience and ability to help it expand," Foster says.

The benefits of increasing educational opportunities are enormous, says Dr. Michael McKinney, incoming senior executive vice president and chief operating officer of the University of Texas Health Science Center in Houston. They include helping Austin cement its ability to attract top talent in the medical and research arenas, garner more funds for research and discover more scientific breakthroughs, he says.

Bringing more medical students and young doctors to Austin bodes well for all of Austin's health care providers. Area hospitals say demand for doctors of all types is growing. In some areas of medicine, demand already is surpassing supply, especially when it comes to highly specialized ER surgeons.

To meet the demands of a continually growing population, Seton projects that Central Texas will need more than 600 new physicians over the next five years.

Foster says a side benefit to expanding medical education here deals with recruiting: Once a doctor -- or one in training -- lives and works in Austin, the chances of keeping him or her here grows.

Noting that UTMB in Galveston could benefit from a stronger affiliation with the system's academic powerhouse in Austin, Dr. James Guckian, executive vice chancellor for health affairs for the UT System, says discussions of a joint M.D. and Ph.D. program between UT's Austin and Galveston campuses are in the works.

"There's a great need nationally for clinical research scientists, and these individuals need the discipline and training that can come about by both having an M.D. and Ph.D.," Guckian says.

UT's Austin campus would provide the Ph.D. portion, while Galveston campus would provide medical training. The kinds of degrees that would be offered remain under consideration but might include immunology and microbiology, Guckian says.

The increased focus on expanding medical education has caused speculation to resurface about a UT medical school being established here. But health care leaders say they are far from serious discussions about that.

"It's premature to say a medical school is what we need to do," says Charles Barnett, senior vice president of St. Louis-based Ascension Health Inc., Seton's parent company.

Foster agrees.

"If the expansion effort gains enough support ... then a medical school could be a by-product of that," Foster says. "But we'll need stepping stones to get there and we'll cross that bridge when we get to it."

UT's McKinney adds: "The science that goes on at UT Austin right now fits perfectly with a medical school. Long term, I think you need one."

Email COLIN POPE at (cpope@bizjournals.com). Email MARY ALICE KASPAR at (makaspar@bizjournals.com).

© 2003 American City Business Journals Inc.