For decades, San Joaquin Valley residents have been calling for a medical school. Plans at UC Merced have stalled, and a state bill that would have brought a public medical school to Fresno State died in the state assembly in March. And yet, the Fresno area could be home to not only one, but two private medical schools—in just two years.
Dr. Howard Teitelbaum is passionate about medical education. So much so that he was recently on the founding faculty at a medical school in Tennessee. “There’s very few things I can think of that rival starting a medical school,” Teitelbaum says. “It gets you up in the morning.”
His newest venture: A brand new med school right here in Fresno. According to Teitelbaum, the California Central Valley College of Osteopathic Medicine could be up and running by the fall of 2019. “If you take a look at the distribution of physicians, you tend to see that the Central Valley is bereft of primary care, and therefore it seems like a good place to make a start,” he says.
CCVCOM has been making plans in downtown Fresno for years, but it’s laid low and has avoided public announcements. It’s owned by Manipal Global Education Services, an India-based corporation that owns a family of universities and colleges in Asia, the Middle East and the Caribbean. This would be Manipal’s first school in the U.S. and despite its international financing, Teitelbaum says its focus will be on local communities. “My overall objective would be that we’re going to make a positive impact on the healthcare of the people of Fresno and the surrounding area,” he says.
Another school you may have heard of is California Health Sciences University, located to the east in Clovis. It’s home to a pharmacy college in its third year, with plans to open up many more health-related schools later down the line.
Wendy Duncan is CHSU’s provost, and she says the next school on the list is a college of osteopathic medicine, which it also plans to open in 2019. “We need to develop our curriculum, hiring’s started, we need to have a building built,” she says. “So there’s an awful lot that goes on between now and then.”
Unlike Teitelbaum’s school, CHSU is home-grown: it was founded by the Assemi family, which owns local housing developer Granville Homes. Full disclosure: Granville is a corporate sponsor of KVPR.
Duncan says the Assemi family’s roots relate directly to the university’s mission. “At the heart of who we are, it’s all about really creating equity in the region,” she says. “I know both deans that I’ve hired have serving the underserved as the core of who they are.”
Both of these schools would produce osteopathic doctors, or DOs, rather than MDs, who practice allopathic medicine. So why would both schools be teaching osteopathic medicine? Teitelbaum and Duncan explain it’s partly because of the local need for primary care providers. Even though doctors in both disciplines undergo rigorous training and qualify for most of the same residencies, osteopathic physicians tend to focus more holistically on the entire body. Dr. Boyd Buser, president of the American Osteopathic Association, says more than half of osteopathic physicians stay in primary care.
“We recognize that a person’s state of health is influenced by the body, the mind and the spirit,” Buser says, “and that the body systems function interdependently and we recognize that in the way we think about our approach to providing care for our patients.”
What’s happening locally also reflects a national trend. Forty years ago, osteopathic students made up about 6 percent of U.S. medical students. Now, that number has surged to nearly 25 percent. DOs and MDs practice alongside one another in hospitals and clinics. Plus, more osteopathic med schools are awaiting accreditation than allopathic ones.
“It’s just been a steady upward trajectory for us, and even more so just in the last 20 years, and I believe that the future’s never been brighter for osteopathic medicine,” Buser says.
Medical education doesn’t end with the classroom. Both colleges are in talks with local health centers to provide clerkships to med students and residencies for graduates. There are enough opportunities that the two schools don’t need to be in direct competition.
CCVCOM is in talks with local hospitals, though Teitelbaum wouldn’t name which ones. Saint Agnes Medical Center has confirmed it could debut a sizeable residency program as early as 2018, and a spokesman for Madera Community Hospital confirms leadership is considering an osteopathic residency program.
Duncan hopes to partner CHSU with federally qualified health centers, which cater to rural areas, patients on Medi-Cal, and the uninsured.
Nicole Butler, executive director of the Fresno-Madera Medical Society, says this is really exciting. “The way that they want to roll this out, it's going to work,” Butler says, “because you have [CCVCOM] that's going to focus on the hospitals and then you have California Health Sciences University that's going to focus on the rural market, and I think that's great.”
Fresno Mayor Lee Brand also looks forward to the economic benefits these schools could bring. “Physicians who finish medical school here and do residency here, they start a practice, they hire physicians assistants and aids and clerical people and bookkeppers,” he says, “so it all has a direct economic impact on the city of Fresno in a very positive way.”
There is one economic wrinkle: until these schools become accredited—a process that could take at least four years for CCVCOM, and much less time for CHSU because the university is on track for accreditation before its college of osteopathic medicine opens—their students won’t be eligible for federal loans. They’ll have to fight for a limited pool of scholarships, or pay in cash—challenges that may still send local doctors-to-be elsewhere.