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Health council, UF at odds over medical school in Jacksonville

The council wants a college of medicine in the city; the school says duplications will cost taxpayers. Posted: September 21, 2010 – 5:31pm, here.

The University of Florida’s reluctance to establish a four-year medical school on the First Coast is being questioned by a community group with a host of high-powered members.

A tentative push for a Jacksonville-based medical school is being led by a regional health council, which released a critical report last week during a meeting of the Florida Board of Governors, the leading body of the state’s 11 public universities.

The Healthcare and Bioscience Council of Northeast Florida, comprised of academics, health care professionals and community heavyweights, made its intentions clear from the start.

“We do not see our needs being met on a permanent basis without a major change in approach towards the Jacksonville healthcare and bioscience community by the University of Florida leadership,” the report states.

The council discussed the possibility of circumventing UF and starting a new medical school with the assistance of another institution.

Last Wednesday’s meeting was packed with academic leaders from each of the state’s major research institutions, including Florida State University and the University of Central Florida.

The first reference to Jacksonville creating its own four-year medical school was made in 2007 during the committee’s first meeting, but the proposal was modified because of UF’s involvement with Shands Jacksonville, said council chairman Yank Coble. The issue was resurrected because Jacksonville is one of the few major cities in the country that has a public university but no medical school.

Members agreed in 2007 that the most cost-effective way to improve the region’s medical future was to continue investing in Shands. But UF officials said the school doesn’t want to transform the Jacksonville facility into a full-fledged medical school.

‘At the crossroads’

“We find ourselves at the crossroads — either a new course must be charted for the future or we accept the status quo,” the report said.

Shands Jacksonville is a clinical site for third- and fourth-year medical students who are rotated in every four to eight weeks. But Shands lacks any academic offerings for less-seasoned medical students, and Coble said most upper-level students are more likely to return to Gainesville than stay in Jacksonville when their residencies end.

“It’s more efficient if students can be here for all their third or fourth years instead of being brought over in rotations,” Coble said. “And if they have to find apartments instead of living in the on-site dormitories, they would be more likely to stay around once they finish. Having an established medical school presence like that could only help the local economy.”

The hospital has no plans to increase the number of medical students or residencies in Jacksonville, said David Guzick, president of the UF and Shands Health System.

That’s for a reason. Guzick said bringing first- and second-year students to Jacksonville when they already have the required courses in Gainesville would be an unnecessary duplication that would cost taxpayers. The same would be true of keeping medical residents in Jacksonville any longer than the customary four to eight weeks.

Focus on improvements

He said the focus should be on improving Shands.

“If a group uses the influence of community members for philanthropy and to boost state funding, we’d be able to do more,” Guzick said. “We don’t need to be bringing the first-year med students here. We’d be a better service to the community if we invested in research and clinical offerings — concrete work that can benefit the local economy.”

It’s unclear what school would take a chance on establishing a four-year medical school in Jacksonville.

University of North Florida President John Delaney said the First Coast college isn’t in the market to become a research-driven university with a top-tier medical school.

“We’re focused on growing at our own pace and being one of the best undergraduate institutions in the state,” Delaney said. “If I was given $60 million, I wouldn’t use it on a med school. I’d use it to improve our existing programs — every time.”

Coble said it’s too early to say if there are any other schools that would be willing to establish a four-year site in Jacksonville. However, there is a precedent.

Mercer University in Georgia recently developed a regional medical campus in Savannah. And Coble’s alma mater, Duke University, even has a location in Singapore.

But Coble cautioned that the council’s discussion was mainly exploratory. No serious steps have been made to secure a Jacksonville-based medical school. He said the council’s report is based on the community’s input, and many residents feel Jacksonville needs a stronger base for health care and medical research.

“We have great assets here in Jacksonville, so we need to explore every option,” Coble said. “We wouldn’t be doing our job if we didn’t at least see what we could do to improve.”

matt.coleman@jacksonville.com, (904) 359-4654

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