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Four-year medical school planned for north St. Louis, aims to increase workforce diversity

Four-year medical school planned for north St. Louis, aims to increase workforce diversity

Ponce Health Sciences University rendering

A rendering of the proposed Ponce Health Sciences University campus, in the footprint of the 'NorthSide Regeneration Innovation District.'

ST. LOUIS — A new four-year medical school with the goal of diversifying the medical workforce with doctors who want to work in poor urban and rural areas is coming to north St. Louis.

Plans call for construction to begin late this year and opening with a freshman class of 150 in fall of 2022.

Ponce Health Sciences University, with a main campus in Puerto Rico and a branch in St. Louis, is scheduled to announce an $80 million commitment to develop the new campus at Jefferson and Cass avenues at a media event Friday.

In an interview with the Post-Dispatch, the president of Ponce, Dr. David Lenihan, said the university’s goal is to provide opportunities for minority and low-income students who fail to get a spot in a traditional medical school but show promise to succeed.

These students, in turn, tend to work in the communities where they grew up and are much-needed, he said. They also help improve poor health outcomes that tend to plague those communities because they better understand their patients.

“St. Louis is positioned right in the heart of America,” Lenihan said. “The reason why St. Louis is so good, is that if our mission is trying to increase the cultural diversification and the socio-economic diversification, why don’t we build it in the Midwest, where we need it? We don’t need it in New York. You don’t need it in Miami or California. You need it in Missouri, Kansas and rural Illinois.”

With Washington University and St. Louis University medical schools already in St. Louis, and major health systems including BJC HealthCare, SSM Health and Mercy based in the region, Lenihan said it also will be easier to find the 120 faculty and staff members the new school plans to hire.

“We are excited Ponce Health Sciences University is coming to town and see it as a win for the region and for our School of Medicine. We look forward to continuing to explore the potential for partnership between our schools that exists,” said Dr. Daniel Blash, chief diversity officer at SLU School of Medicine.

The new school will be built by Clayco and leased by Ponce. It will be part of developer Paul McKee’s sweeping NorthSide Regeneration Plan to develop the site of the former Pruitt-Igoe housing project across from the future site of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency’s western headquarters.

Gateway Elementary School is across the street, Lenihan pointed out, and those students and others in the area will be more exposed to the idea of going to medical school.

“They’re going to see students just like them in white coats becoming doctors, working in the health care. And if you see that day in and day out, you know you can do that. That’s how you start changing the psyche and the opportunities that these students believe that they can do,” he said. “And that’s, again, why we want to build a school in that area. You don’t need to build in Clayton, you build in north St. Louis.”

The first phase of McKee’s project involves building a small three-bed medical facility, with the promise that the facility will grow into a larger hospital to serve the area. Lenihan says he has been acting as an adviser on the project, because he hopes to have his medical school graduates train and complete their residencies at the hospital.

The nation faces a shortage of up to 49,000 primary care doctors in the next 10 years, according to a 2018 report by the Missouri Hospital Association. The trend is expected to leave large primary care “deserts” in rural areas and underserved portions of urban Missouri.

“Several Missouri counties have no primary care physicians. The Missouri Hospital Association applauds PHSU’s efforts to address the shortages that exist today and that are expected in the long-term,” said Herb Kuhn, hospital association president.

A federal analysis predicts Missouri will have a shortage of 1,220 primary care providers by 2025.

Eight acute hospitals in rural Missouri also have closed in the past five years, leaving 44 counties without a hospital.

“If you really want to solve the problem in Missouri, and elsewhere in the U.S., you have to train more providers,” Lenihan said. “This is how we show the rest of the U.S. and the world, this is how you do this.”

While serving as dean at Touro’s School of Medicine in Harlem, New York, and president since 2014 at Ponce, Lenihan studied outcomes and came up with a formula to find students who might not have the stellar college grades or Medical College Admission Test scores typically needed to land a spot in medical school, but are still likely to do well and pass their licensing exams to become doctors.

Getting into medical school becomes increasingly competitive. For the 2018–2019 school year, 21,622 applicants were accepted into medical schools out of the 52,777 who applied, for an overall acceptance rate of 41%, according to the Princeton Review.

“We need to change the way we do our admissions into medical school, still guaranteeing the quality, but find different methods so that we can get more diversity into our health care workforce,” Lenihan said.

All of the students at Ponce’s medical school in Puerto Rico — which also serves a total of 600 students — are either minorities or low-income, he said. The school supplies 12% of all the Hispanic medical school graduates in the U.S. The annual tuition of $35,000 at the private school is close to the cost of in-state tuition at a public school.

“We’re developing our own population from people in the community — people from around the rural areas and St. Louis in particular — we want to cultivate that population, so they become our students,” he said. “That’s what I’ve done in Puerto Rico. And that’s what I did in New York.”

At the Ponce branch in the Globe Building in downtown St. Louis and in other cities, Ponce offers a one-year Master of Science program that mirrors the first year of medical school to help students improve their MCAT scores and academic credentials for medical school admission. Lenihan said the new medical school will recruit many of those students.

“It’s a massive opportunity for those individuals who can be great doctors but have been overlooked,” he said. “We are going to give them a chance.”

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