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Indiana part of national medical school surge

February 17, 2010

One major concern with the health reform proposals in Congress was that they would overwhelm the nation’s already short-handed physician community while providing no new incentives to boost medical education. But with two dozen medical schools arriving on the scene, that issue might be getting the treatment it needs.

In Indiana, plans for a school of osteopathic medicine at Marian University fit right in with that national trend, reported on Sunday by The New York Times. But that potential growth is being mitigated by budget cuts at the Indiana University School of Medicine.

In order to slice $3.32 million from its budget this year, the IU med school is planning to reduce its annual enrollment by 40 students, to as low as 280 students per year. At that level, IU would return to its enrollment levels before it launched an expansion plan three years ago.

IU had expanded even though $3 million in state funding was approved but never released.

“We haven’t gotten any money,” Dr. Craig Brater, dean of the IU medical school, said in January. “We’re really struggling with whether or not [to keep growing].”

Marian University, which still needs to raise $45 million to launch its school, wants to enroll 125 to 150 students per year.

The wave of schools opening or planning to open is the biggest since the 1960s and 1970s, according to the Times. During the 1980s and 1990s, only one new medical school was established.

That made entrance into medical school notoriously competitive, even as a shortage of doctors loomed.

“Huge numbers of qualified American kids were not getting into American medical schools or going abroad to study,” Dr. Lawrence G. Smith, dean of a proposed school of medicine at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y., told the newspaper. “I think it was a kind of wake-up call.”

In recent years, doctors groups nationally and in Indiana have called for a ramp-up in medical training to end a shortage that threatens only to get worse as aging baby boomers need more medical care at the same moment boomer physicians retire.

Indiana University medical school estimated in 2006 that the state is short 3,500 physicians. Nationally, the Association of American Medical Colleges says if there isn't a shortage now, there will be by 2020.

Health reforms proposed by President Obama and approved by Congress but now stalled, would have extended health insurance to an additional 30 million Americans. Since insured patients tend to use medical services more than the uninsured, some health experts worried that the nation had too few doctors, particularly at the primary-care level.

If all the proposed schools actually open, they would amount to an 18-percent increase in the 131 medical schools across the country, the Times reported. Some universities working to launch new medical schools include Quinnipiac University in Hamden, Conn.; the University of California-Riverside; Central Michigan University; and Rowan University in Camden, N.J.

A remaining challenge will be to get new doctors working as primary-care doctors in rural areas where the shortage is occurring, not as specialists in suburban areas, which are already well-stocked. Indiana University medical school has been increasing its enrollment at its eight satellite campuses, hoping that students who train near their rural homes would be more likely to practice there.

Marian University touted that doctors trained in osteopathic medicine—which adds extra focus on the musculoskeletal system to the training of traditional medical doctors—are more likely to practice in primary care and in rural areas.

“We think we have a chance to really add something in terms of physicians to the medical community,” said Dan Elsener, president of Marian University, a Catholic school of 2,287 students on Indianapolis’ northwest side.

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