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EDITORIAL: UNLV medical school plans take shape

Less than a year ago, the idea of opening a UNLV medical school was a political nonstarter. Today, an agreement to create one is in writing.

The project’s newfound momentum defies the state’s regional rivalries, the effects of a grinding recession and the current limitations of Southern Nevada’s health care system. It represents a chance to grow and diversify the valley’s economy and improve the availability and quality of care in Southern Nevada.

For decades, the University of Nevada School of Medicine has been the domain of the University of Nevada, Reno, even though the school’s students split their education between Reno and Las Vegas. The concentration of political power in Northern Nevada made this particular hill easy to defend. That political power finally has shifted to Southern Nevada, and it’s not a coincidence that as elected officials start to remedy historic regional inequities in funding for schools, colleges and roads, they’re finally having the long-overdue medical school discussion, too.

The talks started in earnest in March, when Regent Mark Doubrava of Las Vegas, an eye doctor who graduated from the state’s school of medicine, called for the issue to be placed on the board’s discussion agenda. Then, in May, UNLV’s Lincy Institute commissioned a report to examine the economic impact of a four-year allopathic medical school in Las Vegas. The talks were more productive than anyone could have imagined.

The Lincy Institute’s report, completed by Tripp Umbach, was released a couple of weeks ago. Aside from holding the potential to meet the valley’s growing demand for physicians in the decades ahead, the report found the school could have an economic impact of at least $882 million by 2030, largely through research.

On the heels of those findings, last week officials with the School of Medicine, the Nevada System of Higher Education, UNLV and UNR signed a memorandum of understanding to develop a new school in Southern Nevada. Regents could approve the plan, in which UNLV’s school opens as part of UNR’s before gaining independence, as soon as next month.

The planned collaboration is a remarkable culture change for Nevada’s higher education system. But this will be a long-term project with costs that could approach $100 million. For higher education leaders, the challenges are many: building not merely a good medical school, but a great one; raising a substantial amount of private donations in a valley where many big donors already suffer from fundraising fatigue; and laying the groundwork for the creation of at least 240 new medical residency positions. Without those positions, according to the Tripp Umbach report, the two medical schools will export most of their graduates to other states.

We know from the success of UNLV’s Boyd School of Law that an elite professional school can be created from scratch. We know from the success of the Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health that there is a place in Las Vegas for advanced, specialized medical care and research. And we know from downtown’s post-recession revival that big dreams are still attainable in Las Vegas. A state medical school would help this young city and its young university grow up awfully fast.

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