UC Merced needs funding to open a medical school. Here’s how it could happen

Source: ASHLEIGH PANOO, MERCED SUN-STAR

The dream of having medical school at UC Merced is coming closer to becoming a reality, according to politicians and school leaders who conducted a roundtable discussion with students at the university Friday afternoon.

“When we started this campus, we started with a clear sense that working on healthcare disparities is a huge part of our mission,” said Gregg Camfield, the executive vice chancellor and provost at UC Merced. “(But) it’s a difficult, complex, expensive endeavor.”

Since the campus opened in 2005, state legislators and health officials have fought to open a medical school.

Sen. Alex Padilla, Rep. Jim Costa, and Assemblyman Adam Gray, all Democrats, toured the potential future site of a medical education building Friday, with optimism that a partnership with UCSF Fresno could stay on track and eventually train doctors who will remain in the Central Valley.

Padilla said he was “thrilled” to be part of the conversation about starting a medical school. “It’s a no-brainer,” he said.

For the last several months, legislators have been negotiating infrastructure investments, and it could be a good time to get funding, he said.

“Especially given the last year-and-a-half, if we learned nothing, it’s the need to invest in modernizing the capacity of our healthcare infrastructure. That’s not just hospitals and clinics, that’s medical education, and facilities and institutions as well.”

Costa said there have been challenges in attempting to open a medical school over the years, but “we are on a cusp of making the next step.”

“This pandemic that we are in has impacted every element of America; every segment of our society. It’s also demonstrated for a lot of folks the social and economic disparities that have existed in our country for decades, especially in the area of health care, housing and education.”

Although there isn’t a timeline for when a medical school could open, there’s a plan for how the 8-year program could work.

Students would earn a bachelor’s degree at UC Merced, then complete their first 18 months of medical school at UCSF Fresno.

“There’s lots to do to get ourselves aligned and figure out how we’re going to work across the distance,” said Betsy Dumont, the dean of the School of Natural Sciences.

Costa said high-speed rail, which is set to have its first portion running from Bakersfield to Merced, could be the answer whenever it’s finished.

Gray asked Costa and Padilla to advocate for funding at the federal level. Any monies they could secure for the building, faculty, residency, and aid for students would help. “We’ve got an ongoing fight that we’re gonna need more,” he told them.

“We’re advocating for a couple hundred million dollars to deal with the medical education building.”

Camfield said outreach has proven that the community wants and needs more access to healthcare.

“We have gone to the communities we serve and asked them, ‘What do you need from us?’ That’s not always the way research universities work, but it’s the way we want to do things differently.”

Samir Alkhouri, a medical education student at the university, said he’s worked in a local emergency room for the past six months and has noticed many people come in because they don’t have access to primary care providers or specialists.

“Their only option is to come to the ER, and you can see the shortages in nursing staff, you can see the shortages of physicians,” he said. “You could just see how slowed down the healthcare system has been in this area, and I believe it’d be such a compliment to have a medical school here.”

The Education Lab is a local journalism initiative that highlights education issues critical to the advancement of the San Joaquin Valley. It is funded by donors. Learn about The Bee’s Education Lab on our website.