KU Medical Center seeks funding for $75 million education building

Glen Cox remembers the large classrooms and packed lecture halls when he was training to be a doctor at the University of Kansas Medical Center in the 1970s. That was the time-honored way to teach medical students.

Fast forward more than 30 years to the present. They’re still packing them in at KU Med. But that’s become a problem.

Doctor training is undergoing dramatic changes, and KU faces some big hurdles keeping up, said Cox, the medical center’s senior associate dean for medical education. Its education facilities just aren’t designed for the computers and simulation labs and small group discussions demanded of a modern medical education.

The obsolescent classrooms could put the medical school’s accreditation in jeopardy when it comes up for review in the fall, Cox said. Even a suggestion of accreditation problems could keep new students away. Loss of accreditation could make new graduates unemployable.

“It’s a big deal,” Cox said.

That’s the urgent message KU Med is presenting to state officials as it seeks funding for a new $75 million education building. The proposed seven-story building, on what is now a parking lot on the northeast corner of Rainbow Boulevard and 39th Street, would offer state-of-the art teaching facilities for KU students training to be doctors, nurses and other health professionals.

Large lecture classes “passively bathe students in information, hoping they pick up enough of it to pass the examinations,” Cox said. “We know that’s no way to train an expert, particularly in a high-risk profession.”

Medical education is adopting the same kinds of techniques used by the airline industry, training people as teams so they learn to work together, communicate better and avoid making errors.

“That’s the future of high-stakes education,” Cox said.

The medical school already incorporates simulations that use sophisticated mannequins or trained actors substituting for patients. Students also get some of their training in small groups where they’re presented with a patient’s symptoms and have to work together to figure out the diagnosis and treatment.

But the medical school has had to scavenge space for this kind of active learning, and it still doesn’t have enough, Cox said.

Inadequate teaching facilities have loomed large as a threat to the accreditation of other medical schools nationwide.

Meanwhile, medical schools in Missouri, Iowa, Nebraska, Oklahoma and Colorado have refurbished or built new facilities in recent years.

A new education building also would allow the medical school to enroll an additional 25 students each year. That would be essential to providing enough new doctors in Kansas as doctors from the baby boom generation retire in the years ahead, Cox said.

KU Med officials hope Gov. Sam Brownback will include money for the education building in his budget. Having a building plan and a commitment of funding would satisfy accreditation reviewers, said Steven Stites, KU Med’s interim executive vice chancellor. If the money were approved, the building could be completed by early 2016, he said.

KU is proposing that funding for the building come from a windfall of about $26 million that the state received when the federal government refunded FICA taxes that medical schools nationwide had paid on stipends given to medical residents. An additional $30 million would come from state-issued bonds. KU would raise the rest of the money.

Stites conceded that the current political climate doesn’t favor new spending.

“It’s an austere world,” he said.

However, KU officials came out of a December meeting with Brownback hopeful.

“The governor was certainly very positive, very receptive. The necessity for it I think he understands,” Stites said.