The leaders behind the planned whole health medical school in Bentonville not only want to expand health care in northwest Arkansas, but they also want to remake how it’s done.
The 154,000-SF Alice L. Walton School of Medicine, the brainchild of the Walmart Inc. heiress, is scheduled to break ground this spring near Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art.
There, Walton and others behind the ambitious effort aim to do no less than fix the American health care system through the concept of “whole health,” which trains doctors to treat a patient’s mental, emotional and spiritual needs in addition to their physical ones.
The school, which plans to admit its first class of 48 students in 2025, also aims to meet a regional demand to expand health care access and services in fast-growing Washington and Benton counties. But its ultimate effect on the lives of patients could be its greater legacy.
“The Whole Health School of Medicine will help medical students rise to the health challenges of the 21st century through a reimagination of American medical education that incorporates mental, emotional, physical and spiritual health, the elements of Whole Health, to help people live healthier and happier lives,” Walton said in March 2021.
The school is related to Walton’s 75,000-SF Whole Health Institute, a nonprofit holistic health center under construction now, also on the grounds of Crystal Bridges. Institute CEO Walt Cooper and medical school COO Walter Harris told Arkansas Business in a joint statement that whole health is different from traditional medical care.
“Traditional medical care is critical for treating and managing disease, illness, and injury but does not always address social, behavioral, and environmental factors that can contribute to poor health or help prevent health issues,” they said. “Whole Health Institute is transforming the care delivery model under which medical students and residents will train while the school of medicine is creating a first-of-its-kind MD-granting program that builds on conventional medicine teachings with whole health integration.
“[It is] training that emphasizes interprofessional teamwork, health policy and economics, social determinants of health, and caring for diverse populations.”
Ryan Cork, the executive director of the Northwest Arkansas Council’s Health Care Transformation Division, said the idea is long overdue in health care and will be a boon for the area.
“It is a fundamental systematic change in the way that health care is practiced and delivered,” Cork said. “We are fortunate this is in northwest Arkansas.”
Partnering on Specialty Care
Building a new medical school is a process that begins long before groundbreaking.
The Walton School, working with the Whole Health Institute and Cork’s division, already has partnered with medical organizations such as the Cleveland Clinic and Washington Regional Medical System to increase specialty care in the area.
Those programs are important because one of the weak links in the medical system is not the graduation of medical students but the placement of those students in residency programs.
Studies have shown that as many as 70% of new doctors start their practices in or around the areas in which they served as residents. It wouldn’t help the region if 48 whole health-trained physicians graduated in 2029 and then began residencies in other states. Cork said the area needs 200 residency programs and has created 92.
“As a state we were having to outsource all of this intellectual property, if you will, that we had trained in the state to go work somewhere else,” Cork said. “We are already behind the proverbial eight ball.”
Cork said local health care providers and the institute are working together to teach whole health concepts to area physicians. The council has said northwest Arkansas loses $954 million annually from patients seeking health care services elsewhere.
“A study conducted through the Northwest Arkansas Council shows that a significant number of Arkansans leave our state to access health care services,” Cooper and Harris said. “Though northwest Arkansas has relatively strong health care quality, there is not an integrated, whole-person approach to care, and there is opportunity to expand services, improve health, and make health care more accessible by lowering costs. “The goal is to establish northwest Arkansas as a regional health care destination and become a model for the rest of the state and country.”
The Whole Health Institute and the Walton School will have some visually stunning advantages when they are completed.
The institute is being built on the grounds of Crystal Bridges — another Alice Walton project — that has earned rave reviews since it opened in November 2011. The institute is designed by the renowned Marlon Blackwell Architects of Fayetteville and is expected to be completed in 2023.
The medical school will be located east of the institute and museum on J Street with all three connected by a trail system. Polk Stanley Wilcox Architects of Little Rock is the school’s architect, and its facilities will have numerous amenities such as a rooftop park and outdoor classrooms.
“Being world class is what Ms. Walton wanted to do; that is her bar,” Cork said. “The facilities, the faculty, the land the buildings will be built on, all of this is top-notch. That gets us on the map and attracts students who want to come and learn how to practice whole health medicine.”
Crystal Bridges has drawn more than 6 million visitors since it opened. While a medical school and holistic health center won’t get that kind of foot traffic, their presence can make the region a destination.
Cork said being the only medical school that has infused whole health concepts into its core curriculum, into its mission, should help attract some of the best and brightest medical students from across the country who are interested in a more comprehensive program.
“There is a growing body of research that reveals the United States has one of the highest levels of health care spending worldwide and relatively low rankings in overall health,” Cooper and Harris said. “The pandemic further highlighted inequalities, mental health issues, and the need for a whole-person approach to health care — it also revealed interest in a new approach and the power of communities to be a force for change.”