University of Kansas Medical Center professor Robert Moser was disappointed when a task force he was on recently recommended that Kansas add another medical school to address physician shortages in rural areas.
But he wasn’t surprised.
“The frustrating thing was this was kind of a predetermined solution to this problem,” Moser said.
It’s also one that Moser, who formerly served as Kansas Secretary of Health and Environment, doesn’t believe will solve the problem.
The task force was appointed by Gov. Sam Brownback to study the feasibility of establishing a new Doctor of Osteopathy school in Kansas, after Brownback said in January that he wanted an osteopathic medical school in the state.
Moser and Kansas City University Medicine and Biosciences president Marc Hahn both sat on the task force, though their institutions would be competitors to the new school.
“KU was not excited, obviously,” Moser said of the task force’s recommendation.
Hahn said he hopes the state will focus more on some of the task force’s other recommendations, and consider a new medical school only as a last resort.
“From a competition standpoint obviously there’s concern if the development of the new program negatively impacts student recruitment,” Hahn said. “But all in all, really the focus of the task force was to make recommendations to address the needs of the state and really the needs of the region.”
Hahn said KCU, which is an osteopathic medicine school, has shown a commitment to addressing those needs already. It opened a satellite campus in Joplin this year and 40 percent of its graduates go on to work in rural areas.
Moser noted that KU Medical Center has satellite campuses in Wichita and Salina in addition to the main campus in Kansas City, Kan. They would have to compete for faculty if a new school were established in those parts of the state.
Still, the project appears to be gaining momentum.
Terry Holdren, the CEO of the Kansas Farm Bureau and Brownback’s pick to head the task force, said a potential funder has been identified in Wichita’s Riverside Health Foundation and a consultant’s study identified Wichita, Topeka and Manhattan as sites that could support a new school.
“All three of those communities at one point or another in our work expressed some interest,” Holdren said. “The task force didn’t think we had the authority or the ability to pick a winner there. ... Our belief was that we needed to hand the ball off or get out of the way to some extent so those communities could work with Riverside or other folks interested in making this happen to see what might develop.”
Osteopathic medicine schools take a “whole body” approach to health care more than traditional medical schools like KU, but graduates of both types of schools have to meet the same general standards to practice.
Graduates of osteopathic schools are more likely to go into primary care, which is the area of greatest need in rural Kansas. Ninety-two of Kansas’ 105 counties are considered medically under-served.
“The creation of a DO (Doctor of Osteopathy) school will increase access to health care so we can ensure the best options for care even in the most rural areas of our state,” Brownback said in a statement touting the task force’s report. “Promoting strong medical training programs here is critical to the success and well-being of both our students and our residents.”
But Moser said having enough medical students is not the biggest problem for Kansas. The biggest problem is a shortage of residency slots in the state for students who have already graduated. Adding more medical school graduates will probably just send more of them to other states, he said.
“We don’t even necessarily have a pathway for them (to stay in Kansas),” Moser said.
Brownback allotted $5 million for a rural health residency program in January, when he announced the formation of the task force.
Moser said more money for programs like that, as well as tuition assistance for doctors who choose rural areas and other recruitment tools would have a more immediate impact. But they would also cost more money in a state that has had several years of budget crises.
Moser said he thinks that’s a major factor in the drive to attract a new medical school.
“Obviously that’s a private, entrepreneurial-type product that wouldn’t require any state investment,” Moser said. “That’s attractive, I understand, but it doesn’t solve the problem.”