Dean: Southern Nevada medical school costly but needed

CARSON CITY — Creating a new public medical school in Southern Nevada could cost the state and taxpayers $30 million a year but failing to do so could contribute to an inadequate statewide health care system in the years ahead, the state medical school dean told a panel of lawmakers Wednesday.

Thomas L. Schwenk, dean of the University of Nevada School of Medicine, said Nevada needs to “do everything more” in medical education or run the risk of having inadequate health care for residents.

That could involve expanding existing medical education programs or establishing a new medical school, he said.

“I think if we do not take advantage of whatever window of opportunity we have here over the next few years to chart a new course, Nevada could find itself woefully bereft of physicians,” he said.

Schwenk said he is trying to change the discussion from a north-south debate to how best to expand medical education opportunities.

The state is underserved in medical education but has huge health care needs, he said. Schwenk said he would like to expand the number of graduates in the existing medical school from 70 per year to 100 but that goal is dependent on clinical teaching capacity.

Schwenk made his comments to the Legislative Committee on Health Care during a brief overview of the existing medical school and the memorandum of understanding recently signed by officials with the Nevada System of Higher Education to move toward the creation of a full medical school at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

Expanding existing medical education programs would be costly as well. A list of three priorities for expanding the current medical education programs submitted to lawmakers shows a net cost to the school of $15.7 million. The priorities include expanded family medicine, pediatrics and internal medicine education.

The planning process for a University of Nevada, Las Vegas Medical School was approved by the Board of Regents last month.

Schwenk said the creation of what ultimately could be a separate four-year medical school at UNLV would not be cheap.

State funding for the existing systemwide medical school is about $30 million a year, and new medical schools being considered in other states are seeking even higher levels of state support, he said. The total Nevada medical school budget is about $160 million a year, with most of the money coming from other sources.

The process of creating a new medical school is so complex, long-term and expensive that it has to be driven by quality and funding, Schwenk said.

There is no lack of expertise, will or desire to expand medical education in Nevada, he said.

But it will come down to what the state is prepared to do as one of the partners in the effort, Schwenk said.

“I don’t have a dog in this political fight,” he said. “My issue is to grow public medical education across the state.”

Stacy Woodbury, executive director of the Nevada State Medical Association, said the state’s health care delivery system will see dramatic changes due to the implementation of the federal Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.

“Our existing primary care physician workforce needs to almost double over the next 15 years to cover our growing and aging population,” she said in her report to the committee.

In addition, about 25 percent of the practicing physicians in Nevada in 2010 were over the age of 60, and access to care will be affected as they retire, Woodbury said.

The committee was told that two-thirds of rural Nevada residents and one-third of urban residents already live in what is defined as a health care professional shortage area.

Nevada ranks 46th in the nation for the number of primary care physicians per capita.

Contact Capital Bureau reporter Sean Whaley at swhaley@reviewjournal.com or 775-687-3900. Follow him on Twitter @seanw801.