UTeach to invest $30 million in Rio Grande Valley
AUSTIN — The University of Texas System regents voted Thursday to make a $30 million investment in science and health education in South Texas and the Rio Grande Valley, laying the groundwork for a future medical school in the region.
In what some officials call a “game-changer” for the underserved Valley, UT will spend $10 million to build a simulation teaching hospital in Harlingen and $9.5 million to recruit teaching and research faculty in science, technology, engineering and math at UT System institutions throughout South Texas.
About $2.5 million will go toward boosting the number of medical residency slots and building a base of philanthropy, both crucial to the eventual creation of a medical school.
To strengthen the pipeline of future doctors and health professionals, officials included $4 million for UT-Pan American in Edinburg and UT-Brownsville to implement UTeach, a teacher training program that turns out qualified science and math teachers for K-12 schools. To boost research, UT will invest $4 million in a biomedical research program, a joint endeavor among all UT institutions in the region.
The money will come from endowments and other institutional funds.
“We believe this to be a transformational investment,” said Francisco Cigarroa, chancellor of the UT System and a medical doctor. “What I love about this plan is it will have an impact on classrooms from K-12 all the way up to the doctorate level in higher education.”
For officials in the Rio Grande Valley, the announcement was a big step in a decades-long effort to improve the fast-growing but medically underserved region. According to the Texas Medical Association, Valley counties averaged 104 doctors per 100,000 residents, half the national ratio of 209. There also is a shortage of nurses, pharmacists and other health-care workers.
In 2002, UT opened the Regional Academic Health Center, or RAHC, which consists of a research center in Edinburg and a clinical facility in Harlingen, both operated by the UT Health Science Center at San Antonio. There also is a public health clinic in Brownsville run by the UT Health Science Center at Houston.
San Antonio's health science center opened a branch campus in Laredo in 2002. It offers a degree program in physician-assistant studies as well as dental residencies.
In 2009, lawmakers passed a bill authorizing UT to convert the RAHC into a medical school by about 2016.
The plan is to piggyback on San Antonio's existing medical school by expanding its incoming class and sending more students to the RAHC for third- and fourth-year rotations, said William Henrich, president of the health science center at San Antonio.
Eventually, the RAHC will transform into a comprehensive health science center.
The plan also includes funds to make UT-Brownsville a comprehensive four-year university.
The simulation hospital in Harlingen will be 15,000 square feet and stocked with sophisticated mannequins that prepare students for real patients. The hospital will be available to students across South Texas in various allied health fields.
Valley hospitals have committed to fund 127 residency slots, up from the 30 now in place. UT will begin recruiting faculty to teach and do research in diabetes, heart disease, cancer and other areas ripe for investigation in the region.
“We know exactly which hoops we have to jump through to make it happen,” Henrich said. “It is all tightly choreographed.”
Harlingen donated 35 acres for the RAHC campus in 2010.
“This is a very significant short- and long-term objective for the city of Harlingen, something that we spent a lot of time on since 1998, so we're excited about seeing some further advancement,” Mayor Chris Boswell said.
Nolan Perez, a Harlingen gastroenterologist, was among the first doctors to get additional training at the RAHC and completed his internal medicine residency there in 2004.
“We have a huge underrepresentation of physician manpower down here, and this is the best way to improve it — to have graduate medical education training opportunities down here.”
What's uncertain is whether the state will carve out a new stream of money to operate the school, said Kenneth Shine, vice chancellor for health affairs at the UT System. Running a medical school costs $40 million to $50 million a year, a pricey prospect in a climate of cutbacks, he said.
The first step in expanding San Antonio's medical class requires a $55 million teaching and learning center in San Antonio, Henrich said. This session, state lawmakers failed to pass tuition revenue bonds that would have funded it.
“This could all turn around with the economy turning around. We just don't know,” Henrich said.
Meanwhile, UT's $30 million investment will have a huge impact on the Valley, paving the way for health education that is forward-thinking, Shine said.
“We want to be where health care is going, rather than simply recreating the old models,” he said.
Staff writer Lynn Brezosky contributed to this story from Brownsville.