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UC Riverside makes rare second attempt to add medical school

UC Riverside didn't give up after being denied accreditation for a medical school, and officials hope that new funding will mean students can enroll next year.

July 17, 2012|By Larry Gordon, Los Angeles Times
  • Richard Olds, founding dean of the UC Riverside medical school, says the school could help address the shortage of doctors in the Inland Empire. UCR student Regina Inchizu, right, wants to be part of that, but she will have to spend two years at UCLA to graduate.
Richard Olds, founding dean of the UC Riverside medical school, says the… (Irfan Khan, Los Angeles…)

UC Riverside's long-held dream to have a full medical school was badly battered last year when the state refused to pay for it and then national accreditors wouldn't allow it to open. Those denials were a blow to the UC system's proud tradition of adding campuses and programs to serve a growing state.

Now, UC Riverside is making what national experts say is a rare second attempt to gain approval for a medical school. Campus officials say they have obtained alternative financial backing, worth about $10 million a year for a decade, from private donors, local government and the UC system in hopes that the medical school can enroll its first 50 students in fall 2013.

"We have so much riding on the school being successful, we just can't accept that it can't be done," said G. Richard Olds, a tropical-disease expert who is the founding dean of the UC Riverside medical school. The goal, he said, is to ease the shortage of doctors in the Inland Empire.

The medical school would be UC's sixth and its first to open since the late 1960s. The school would be the only one in UC without its own hospital, vastly cutting down on costs. UC's medical centers and its health education programs constitute about half of the system's $22-billion annual budget.

Some skeptics say that UC is in a new era of limits and that even noble causes must be put on hold to preserve the academic quality of its 10 campuses at a time of rising tuition and cutbacks in undergraduate course offerings.

But UC Riverside medical school supporters insist that progress still must be pursued, albeit cautiously.

For three decades, UC Riverside has operated a joint medical school program with UCLA. Its entering classes of about 25 students spend their first two years in Riverside and finish in Westwood.

A full four-year program at UC Riverside would offer clinical training at community medical centers. The emphasis would be on basic fields, including family medicine, pediatrics, gynecology, general surgery and psychiatry, not on more exotic and expensive specialties.

The expectation is that young doctors educated there would more likely practice in the underserved Inland Empire, officials said. Such is the case for Regina Inchizu, who recently finished her first year of medical studies at Riverside and wants to work in the area in family medicine and women's health after she graduates from UCLA. "There is a huge need for doctors in Riverside," she said, adding that she wants to work in such a high-need area.

John Stobo, the UC system's senior vice president for health sciences and services, expressed strong support. "This is not starting from scratch. This is expanding a program that's demonstrated success," he said. "This is not taking money and taking a gamble and seeing if it is going to work."

The fate of the proposal lies with the national accreditor, the Liaison Committee on Medical Education, which last year said finances looked too uncertain without solid state backing. Dan Hunt, the agency's co-secretary, said it will vote in October on UC Riverside's renewed application to recruit and enroll students. (Full accreditation — which looks at, among other things, the quality of education in classrooms and clinics — would be decided after the school is open several years.)

The situation is unusual, he said, since only two proposals to open new schools were rejected over the last 25 years, and only UC Riverside is trying again. In that time, 14 schools in the U.S. were allowed to open, and five in addition to Riverside are trying to do so, according to the agency.

The second accrediting team recently toured UC Riverside's labs and classrooms, some still under construction, and reviewed educational, scientific and financial criteria. Among the group's concerns: whether a school relies too heavily on tuition to support itself. Hunt declined to comment about specifics of UC Riverside's application or its chances, but in general, he said, if any public medical school is "really counting on state money and if they don't have it in their pocket, it is going to be an issue."

Last year, the UC system unsuccessfully sought $10 million in start-up costs from the state but instead had to use other funds. Since then, Olds and UC Riverside Chancellor Timothy P. White began knocking on doors for support.

As a result, the UC president's office and the UC Riverside campus will provide $4 million a year from its own nonstate funds and about $6 million a year has been pledged by Riverside County, the quasi-governmental Desert Healthcare District, affiliated hospitals and other donors. In addition, the UC system has authorized a $30-million line of credit, a backup officials say they don't expect to tap.

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