The Arkansas State University System said Tuesday that a study it commissioned found that an osteopathic medical school at its Jonesboro campus would help meet a demand for primary-care physicians in the Delta and inject $70 million into the region.
In a news release, ASU Jonesboro Chancellor Tim Hudson said the university is moving ahead with plans to found an osteopathic school. He expects a proposal about how to do so will go before ASU’s Board of Trustees on Feb. 28.
The Delta Regional Authority, which supports ASU's plans for an osteopathic school, helped fund the study conducted by Tripp Umbach, a consulting firm based in Pittsburgh.
"The addition of a new medical school would be a much needed investment into the health, welfare, and economy of northeast Arkansas and the greater Delta region," Chris Masingill, federal co-chairman of the Delta Regional Authority, said in a news release. "We have a dire need for more physicians in the Delta region, as currently 230 of counties and parishes in the Delta are considered to be health professional shortage areas."
Dan Rahn, the chancellor of the state's only medical school, the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, on Tuesday agreed that there's a physician shortage in Arkansas "with large areas of the state being underserved." But he said he's not sure how establishing a new medical school would address the problem.
Rahn told Arkansas Business that the focus should be on adding more residency slots, not opening another medical school.
"Because otherwise we run the risk of educating new graduates within the state of Arkansas who aren't actually going to contribute to solving the problems in Arkansas," of the physician shortage, he said.
In order to become a licensed doctor, a medical student has to go through a residency program. In 2013, there were 528 graduates nationwide who didn't find a residency program to become a medical doctor, which was double the amount from 2012, Rahn said.
The Tripp Umbach study listed a need to expand graduate medical education and residency training among its findings. It said, "Arkansas State must work with state universities, hospitals, health centers, government entities and businesses to add residency positions statewide."
"Our analysis of hospitals and clinics in the Jonesboro area indicates that a significant amount of clinical activity is present to support the education of up to 120 medical students per class," Paul Umbach, founder and president of Tripp Umbach, said. "About 76 percent of the residency positions are housed in Little Rock with only 24 percent of the state’s total population. The residency position distribution is skewed."
Other key findings of the Tripp Umbach study include:
• There is a shortage of physicians in northeast Arkansas and the Delta that will worsen as more than a quarter of Arkansas' physicians retire within the next five years and the state's population ages.
• More doctors will be needed in northeast Arkansas and the Delta as more people have access to the health care system under health care reform and seek preventative care.
• Medical education opportunities are limited in Arkansas, which has only one medical school, and educating students locally is important to keeping physicians in the region.
• The medical school would be "a major driver of the regional economy," creating "thousands of jobs and hundreds of millions in annual net impact to the region." The direct and indirect effect of the school during the two-year startup period would total $69.9 million, providing 317 jobs and adding $2.1 million in taxes to local communities. The regional economic effect is expected to grow to $88 million annually.
Arkansas State announced in June that it was exploring establishing an osteopathic medical school in Jonesboro. In December, it began talks with the New York Institute of Technology, one of the top osteopathic schools in the country, about a partnership. On Tuesday, Hudson said talks with NYIT continue.
Arkansas State isn't the entity considering an osteopathic school. The Fort Smith Regional Healthcare Foundation is conducting its own feasibility study, due in March or April, about starting one. The foundation has about $50 million so far to put toward the project and has the support of the Arkansas Osteopathic Medical Association.
According to the American Osteopathic Association, osteopathic medicine emphasizes a "whole person" preventative approach, treating the body as an integrated whole rather than for specific symptoms or illnesses.
Osteopathic doctors complete four years of medical school and are licensed physicians who can prescribe medication and perform surgery. Most focus on general practice medicine, although DOs can practice in any specialty of medicine.
Many osteopathic doctors serve rural and underserved areas. Osteopathic medical school includes four years of basic medical education with graduate education through internships, fellowships and residencies lasting an additional three to eight years.
There are about 82,000 osteopathic physicians in the United States, according to the American Osteopathic Association. But only about 300 of those are in Arkansas. There are 26 colleges of osteopathic medical schools across the country with more than 20,000 students.