My view: Time to invest in U.'s medical school

By Clark D. Ivory

Published: Thursday, Dec. 15 2011 12:00 a.m. MST

University of Utah Hospital in Salt Lake City, Utah on Wednesday, Oct., 15, 2009.

Mike Terry, Deseret News

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On Monday, Gov. Gary Herbert unveiled his 2012 budget proposal, in which he asked the Legislature for a $6.5 million increase in funding for the University of Utah School of Medicine. Strengthening support for the state's only medical school is a wise investment in Utah's economic future and health and well-being of its families. I would urge members of the Legislature to support the governor and the medical school to further expand its capacity to produce badly needed physicians for our state.

With the additional $6.5 million the governor proposes, the medical school will be able to restore its class size to the level of two years ago — before the university made the difficult decision to cut the medical school class size by 20 places in response to a $10 million cut in federal supplemental support. Facing challenging economic times, the state did not make up the shortfall.

When Dr. Vivian Lee joined the U. as senior vice president for Health Sciences in July, she recognized the need to restore the school's capacity and stepped up efforts to pursue operational efficiencies and educational innovation. Lee announced a $12.2 million plan to return class size to 102 students in 2013 and then take advantage of economies of scale to bring total class size to 122 students by 2015. Lee's proposal would increase class size by 40 students in a cost-sharing program that would require a $9.6 million contribution from the state — less than the original $10 million the federal government cut in 2008.

I believe the Legislature will see the merit in this investment and support Lee's bold plan. Her vision requires school administrators to stretch every education dollar. It requires educators to embrace innovations that can reduce costs, while preserving and even enhancing the educational experience for students. Lee has the proven capability to make this vision a reality. One of the country's foremost physician-scientists, she previously served as the vice dean for science, chief scientific officer, and senior vice president at the New York University (NYU) Langone Medical Center, where she distinguished herself as a gifted leader who applies business principles to the world of higher education.

Expanding the U.'s medical school is in the best interests of the state of Utah. The country's growing shortage of physicians is a looming public health care crisis with profound implications for our state, which ranks 46th in the nation in the number of physicians per capita. At present, the state's contribution to our medical school is modest at about 4 percent of the school's overall budget, compared to the median level of state support for public medical schools of 14 percent.

Among nation's leading medical schools, with highly ranked programs in family medicine and primary care, the U.'s medical school produces world-class doctors who enhance the quality of life in our state. Under Lee, the school is reaffirming its commitment to excellence in education and to its mission as the state's flagship institution of higher education. Three quarters of its students are Utah residents and the majority of its graduates go on to practice here in this state.

Herbert's proposal to increase funding for the University of Utah Medical School in a climate of economic uncertainty is a courageous move. By augmenting his proposal, the Legislature can help realize the governor's compelling vision for Utah's future. As the second-fastest growing state economy, Utah has fared better than most during this prolonged national economic slump — due in large measure to the thoughtful approach to economic policy by Herbert and the Legislature, which has maintained a sharp focus on preserving our state's low cost of doing business and high quality of life.

Investing in our state's flagship university and its sole medical school, which has been reenergized by new leadership with a spirit of innovation, is the right move to build on Utah's economic momentum.

Clark Ivory has been the CEO of Ivory Homes since 2000. He is the chair of the University of Utah Board of Trustees.

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