COLUMBIA — Faced with a national shortage of rural physicians, heavy but unmet demand from would-be doctors and limited classroom space, MU wants to expand its medical school with a second campus in Springfield.
The Columbia-based School of Medicine joined health care providers CoxHealth and Sisters of Mercy Health to support a clinical campus in southwest Missouri. The program would provide third- and fourth-year medical students who started their training in Columbia with hands-on experience treating patients at two Springfield hospitals, under the supervision of doctors at CoxHealth and St. John's Hospital, which is owned by the Mercy Health system. The plan was outlined Friday afternoon at a news conference at the Springfield Area Chamber of Commerce.
"You literally require more patients to build up a medical school," said Steve Edwards, president and chief executive officer for CoxHealth. "And Springfield is one of the largest cities in the country without a medical school."
Most of the medical school's physical expansion would occur in Columbia, which now admits just 96 new students each year from 1,500 applicants.
That makes the medical school at the state's largest university roughly half the size of peer institutions at St. Louis University, Kansas City University of Medicine and Biosciences and even the Kirksville College of Osteopathic Medicine at A.T. Still University, in terms of student enrollment. Under the proposed expansion, Missouri would boost its first-year class by 32 students, a one-third increase.
And doctors trained in Columbia— nearly 45 percent — are more likely to remain in the state after they graduate, said Weldon Webb, associate dean for rural health at the University of Missouri School of Medicine.
"We're the No. 1 provider of practicing physicians in the state, even though we are one of the smaller programs in Missouri," he said.
Edwards and other boosters of the Springfield program note that the region is growing faster than the rest of the state, particularly in the resort town of Branson and communities near Table Rock Lake. A recent Missouri Hospital Association report shows the state's rural areas have fewer primary care physicians per person than urban ones, with a disproportionate share of rural doctors approaching retirement age.
"We forecast future needs that will outstrip our ability to serve the region," Edwards said.
An economic impact study commissioned by the Springfield-Green County Regional Health Commission suggests that construction alone would add 475 jobs and $56.5 million to the state's economy, with the full impact once trained doctors are in place considerably higher.
The flip side of that good news? A new medical education building in Columbia would cost $30 million, with another $10 million in additional operating costs each year. That could be a tough sell in Jefferson City, where earlier this year Gov. Jay Nixon proposed a $106 million cut to higher education in the next fiscal year. A $40 million contribution from the national mortgage fraud settlement reduced that planned cut, and state lawmakers have largely agreed on a budget that would spare public colleges and universities from any reductions.
Campus building projects have floundered in recent years, with failed efforts to tap into federal stimulus funds and money from Missouri's student loan agency, including a long-sought replacement for the aging Ellis Fischel Cancer Center.
"The big issue is funding," said Webb, who added that the project could benefit from federal grants and a hoped-for robust private fundraising effort in southwest Missouri.
A Nixon spokesman declined an interview request Friday afternoon.
The doctors-in-training would be evenly split among the two Springfield hospitals, Edwards said, expanding the medical school's footprint in southwest Missouri, where MU students have helped staff rural clinics in towns such as Monett, Aurora and Mt. Vernon since 2005.
Webb said the university was initially contacted by the Springfield hospitals, with the parties signing an agreement in 2010. Edwards said the hospitals had been approached by four potential medical school partners "of varying stature," but the decision to work with MU was an easy one.
He added that the project has received favorable reviews in informal discussions in the Capitol, though no specific funding request has been made. He summarized the pitch to lawmakers: "It's about expanding access to healthcare, it's about education and it's about economic opportunity."