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Full speed ahead for Fort Worth medical school

By Jim Fuquay / jfuquay@star-telegram.com

The Texas Legislature’s recent failure to approve an M.D. program at the University of North Texas Health Science Center at Fort Worth won’t derail the institution’s growth, its president says.

“Everything we produce — as far as doctors, and physician assistants, and physical therapists — this state and the country need a whole lot more of,” said Dr. Scott Ransom, who has headed the center since 2006.

To that end, the center expects to boost its total enrollment from 1,579 in 2010 to 1,775 this fall, rising to nearly 3,000 by 2017. The biggest program is the 728-student Texas College of Osteopathic Medicine, founded in 1970 and the genesis of what is now the health science center.

Likely adding to that growth — pending expected approval this month by the UNT board of regents — is a new Ph.D. program in pharmacy, which the Legislature approved this year after a six-year push by the health science center. The school expects to enroll its first class in the program in 2013.

The addition of the pharmacy program, which Ransom said will help boost research funding from pharmaceutical manufacturers, was overshadowed by the center’s inability to gain the M.D. program. That effort dates to late 2008, when Ransom publicly broached the prospect of adding a school of allopathic medicine — the discipline that awards the familiar M.D. designation. (Osteopaths are granted a D.O.)

In this year’s Legislature, lawmakers “just had to work on higher-priority issues, and [the M.D. program] got put on the back burner,” Ransom said last week. He said he’s not aware of any opposition from other medical schools in the state.

The proposal did draw opposition from state and national osteopaths’ associations, as well as some area osteopaths, concerned that an M.D. program would detract from the school’s historical role in osteopathic medicine. But Ransom, a D.O. himself and a practicing obstetrician, says osteopaths gave about a quarter of the $25 million raised to start an M.D. program.

Cost to the state was not a reason why the Legislature declined to take up the issue, he said.

The center will continue to push for an M.D. program, Ransom said, because it offers such a “game-changing” opportunity to supply the state with more physicians and boost the school’s research budget, which has grown from just over $10 million in 2000 to nearly $40 million in 2010. That means research accounts for roughly 20 percent of the school’s $214 million annual budget.

Research opportunities

“An M.D.-granting medical school has unbelievable contributions — more doctors, more researchers, great partnerships with hospitals and pharmaceutical companies and other life-science industries,” said Ransom, 48, who besides his medical degree has an MBA from the University of Michigan and a master’s degree in public health from Harvard University. “Some of the best medical investigators in the world like to be part of an M.D.-granting medical school,” he said. “So if we don’t have one, they’re more likely to go to Dallas or somewhere else in the country.”

Other Texas medical institutions show just how much research can mean to an organization.

For example, the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas, which has an operating budget about six times bigger than the health science center, says it pulled in $405.8 million in fiscal 2009, or roughly 10 times the center’s total.

The medical research pool is a deep one. The federal and state governments, industry and other institutions spent an estimated $139 billion on health research in 2009, the latest figure available from Research!America, a Washington, D.C., advocacy group.

Just over half of that, or $74.3 billion, came from private industry, according to the group’s tally. The federal government spent $46.8 million, including $35.5 billion by the National Institutes of Health. Universities, states and local government accounted for $14 billion, with the rest spent by philanthropies, independent research institutes and voluntary health associations, such as the American Cancer Society.

In 2010, the health science center got 82 percent of its research funding from the federal government, with the biggest share of that from NIH. Industry, in contrast, accounted for just 8 percent. Ransom wants to see that grow.

One avenue to more privately funded research could be the center’s collaboration with Tech Fort Worth, a business incubator that has worked since 2008 to provide new health-related enterprises access to the center’s laboratories and faculty, said Darlene Ryan, Tech Fort Worth’s executive director.

“Mainly, we work with startup companies, more than half of which are in life sciences, and we try to bring them to the health science center,” Ryan said. “Several do quite a lot of business with HSC.”

One example is Vital Art and Science, a Richardson venture that received $300,000 from the Texas Emerging Technology Fund and was recently accepted into Tech Fort Worth’s Acceleration Program, which supports young companies trying to commercialize new technologies. Vital Art and Science developed a monitor that patients with degenerative eye diseases can use at home to test their vision, saving them trips to the doctor’s office.

Mike Bartlett, the company’s president, said he has been working with UT Southwestern and the Retina Association of the Southwest in Dallas, but just last week met with health science center officials to identify ways to collaborate.

“We think the resources there are very good,” Bartlett said of the center’s research facilities and clinical experience. “If we get our next NIH grant,” he said, the company would anticipate working with the center’s students and clinics on a round of clinical trials.

Another Tech Fort Worth client, ZS Pharma of Fort Worth, received $2 million from the Emerging Technology Fund, some of which it spends at the center to develop drugs aimed at treating kidney and liver disease.

The center’s research facilities include the $42 million, six-story Center for BioHealth, which opened in 2004 and is filled with laboratories. One recent day, researchers cultured eye cells and monitored a set of cow eyes as part of research into glaucoma, a condition of high pressure in the eye that slowly reduces vision.

Room for growth

The center’s shiniest new toy is the 112,000-square-foot Medical Education and Training Building, which has two 250-seat auditoriums that can be combined into one; training rooms for medical students, physician assistants and physical therapists; and administrative offices. The building, on the site of the former osteopathic hospital that was demolished in 2004, expanded the center’s campus to 1.4 million square feet.

Several small, older buildings are scheduled for demolition and landscaping to soften the main campus’s concrete, urban feel. But the center’s long-term plan still has nine more buildings, which Ransom says should expand the campus to 2.2 million square feet.

That’s part of how the center plans to reach Ransom’s projected student population of nearly 3,000 by 2017 — and not a moment too soon, in his view.

Ransom is on the state’s Health Policy Council, which three years ago concluded that Texas needed 30 percent more physicians. For that to happen, he said, the state’s existing medical schools needed to grow to capacity, which he says the osteopathic college has done with its incoming class of 230, enough to fill the new education building. “Most of the other medical schools have also grown,” but even that will supply less than half the 30 percent goal, Ransom said. And last year’s healthcare law promises to change the equation by injecting more patients, now uninsured or underinsured, into the system.

“We need to figure out how to grow the number of doctors by 50 percent,” Ransom says. “We need to grow, and we need to grow fast.”

Jim Fuquay, 817-390-7552


Filed under: New Schools

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