Big hurdles for proposed medical school in the Springs

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Plans to establish a medical school in Colorado Springs have run into two main stumbling blocks: finding financial support and persuading doctors to spend time teaching would-be physicians.

If those two obstacles can be overcome, students could be making clinical rounds in Colorado Springs as early as 2013.

They won’t be making the rounds at their own campus. Instead, the plan is to create a branch of the CU Medical School using existing health care establishments. Students will complete their first two years, generally classroom work, at the Denver campus. Then, they will have the option of completing the final two years of clinical training at doctors’ offices, hospitals and clinics around the Springs.

The plan is the brainchild of Operation 6035 and the University of Colorado Medical School, which has wanted to expand outside the Denver area for some time. The plan was unveiled last year as part of a strategy that would help lure biomedical device makers and other health care companies to the Springs.

But money is a constant problem for the medical school, and so expansion hopes hinge on outside dollars. The school’s funding issues are so profound that its accrediting body last year made special note of the problem. Only $10.9 million of the school’s $830 million budget comes from the state, plus an additional $3.6 million from tobacco settlement dollars. It’s the same amount of money that the hospital received in 1985.

That means the school struggles to provide quality education for students.

“The state gets $820 million for its investment of $10 million,” said Richard Krugman, dean of the medical school. “We’re the only university in the state that doesn’t receive state money to pay our faculty. We have to be self-funding, self-sustaining.”

The lack of state funding is a concern because those dollars, along with tuition from students, is the only money the school has to apply toward education. The rest of its budget is used to run the university’s hospital.

The problem is further compounded by the state’s budget crisis. Krugman said he’s been told the medical school’s portion of state money could be cut by another 25 to 50 percent next year.

“It’s a concern, an ongoing concern,” he said.

Because of the state’s rocky financial position, all the money for the proposed Colorado Springs branch of the medical school must come from other sources, possibly private funding, said Phil Lane, director of Operation 6035.

Officials at the medical school are now crunching the numbers to see how much funding is needed to create a branch in the Springs.

“We should have those figures by the end of January,” Lane said. “That’s exciting for us, because it means we will then move to the next step.”

So long as the money is found, of course.

Early estimates of $2.5 million a year were based on 2004 figures when the medical school looked into opening a branch in Grand Junction. Lane said the figure for a Springs operation could be smaller, because there’s no construction budget.

“Our proximity to Denver could also help keep those numbers down,” he said. “We just don’t know yet, we’re still gathering information. The number could also be larger, because of the rising costs of health care. So much is still up in the air.”

Once the organizers have the total cost to create the new branch — most of the dollars will be needed for faculty salaries — then they will seek out ways to pay for it.

Memorial Health System could provide some of the money, said Carm Moceri, chief strategy officer for the system.

The City Council is considering spinning off the municipal hospital into a private, nonprofit group. Part of that effort could involve establishment of a health foundation, which could provide some of the money for the medical school.

It isn’t all about the money.

Third- and fourth-year medical students need clinical experience, but cannot treat patients without a doctor’s oversight. The challenge is in finding doctors willing to serve as both mentors and faculty members of the new branch.

“We support this, but only if the doctors do,” Moceri said. “It won’t work without the doctors.”

Dr. Jeff Oram-Smith, chief medical officer at Penrose-St. Francis, indicated support.

“This is going to be a significant effort,” he said. “We will support it — but we want to make sure it’s done the right way.”

The right way involves making sure students are exposed to a significant amount of clinical work in order to prepare for residencies and internships.

Both hospitals already see some medical students who rotate into the systems for a week or two at a time, Oram-Smith said. But those students don’t have direct contact with patients.

“If the students are not learning in a clinical setting, it’s not a useful experience,” he said. “Some doctors might not be terribly interested in working with medical students. Some patients might not be interested in being part of a teaching hospital.”

Gauging doctor interest is something that Operation 6035 is now doing, Lane said.

The group’s representatives are meeting with doctors from both hospitals, as well as Peak Vista Health Clinics and Colorado Springs Health Partners, both of which could also potentially serve as training grounds for medical students.

Additional medical school branches are needed because it will allow the school to educate more doctors. Nationwide, there is a shortage of doctors, particularly those practicing internal medicine and family medicine.

If all goes as hoped, the Springs branch of the UC medical school could be open for business in as little as two years.

“This is the main thing we’re working on,” Lane said, “and I’m pretty optimistic about it. I think we can do this.”