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New Medical School Wants To Build Ranks Of Primary Care Doctors

NPR icon by Jeffrey Cohen
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Michael Ellison has a tough assignment. He's the associate dean of admissions choosing the first class of a brand new medical school, the Frank H. Netter School of Medicine at Quinnipiac University in Hamden, Conn.

"We have over 1,600 applicants, and we will interview 400 for 60 spots," Ellison says.

The school has a very specific mission: minting doctors who want to go into primary care practice.

Under the Affordable Care Act, millions more people with insurance may be headed to the doctor's office. That means the medical system will need more doctors, nurses, physician assistants, and other health care workers to meet the demand. Quinnipiac is one of about a dozen new medical schools cropping up, and it's spending $100 million just to get up and running.

The school's dean, Bruce Koeppen, says he knows why new physicians don't usually choose primary care. They don't make as much money as specialists, they have to know about everything from the common cold to severe depression, and primary care physicians don't always get the respect that specialists do.

To tackle these challenges, Koeppen says it's important to admit the right students to the program.

"Turns out that women are more likely to go into primary care than men. Individuals who are coming to medicine as a second career are more likely to go into primary care," Koeppen says.

David fits into that second category. He is a 35-year-old pharmacist who has applied for the fall semester. (He asked that his last name not be used because his employer doesn't know he's thinking of a change.)

In his interview with Ellison, David described wanting to have a greater impact on patients' lives, such as calming a child who is anxious during an exam or restoring a patient's heart rhythm in an emergency. "These moments weren't available to me within the context of pharmacy practice," David says.

In addition to career changers like David, Koeppen says students who are first in their families to go to college and students who've come from medically underserved areas are more likely to pursue primary care.

Henry Sondheimer of the Association of American Medical Colleges says that it's good to be clear with your applicants right away.

"To the extent that you clarify your mission to your students who apply and, most importantly, when they interview, so they get to see what you're doing and what you're looking for. Then you will find the students who will fit your mission," Sondheimer says. "This is not for show. I think this is a very important, and very serious, effort by these schools."

The question is, can it work?

Kevin Dorsey says it can, and it does. He's the dean of the Southern Illinois University School of Medicine in Springfield, Ill. His school started in the 1970s with a specific mission that still guides it — the school wants students who will stay in central and southern Illinois when they graduate because that part of the state needs doctors.

"I think we take, through a holistic admissions process, people that we think would be a good fit for this region," Dorsey says. "They are of and from the region, they know the values of the area, we train them here, and they gravitate back."

Training matters, too, he stresses. His school designed a curriculum that gives prospective doctors hands-on, local experience.

That's a strategy that Quinnipiac also aims to try, in part by sending its students out regularly to spend a day with primary care doctors. Nationally, about a third of graduating doctors go into primary care and stay there; Quinnipiac's goal is 50 percent.

This piece is part of a collaboration between NPR, WNPR, and Kaiser Health News.

Copyright 2013 Connecticut Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.wnpr.org.

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