Med school looks to offset cuts

By Drew Thompson, Staff Writer

Bill Shelton has thought about being a doctor his whole life, but his dream has been interrupted by multiple budget cuts.

The U School of Medicine dropped 20 of its 102 seats for the incoming class of 2009 because of financial cuts, keeping students such as Shelton from fulfilling their aspirations at the U. The cut came from a $10 million disallowance of funds from the federal government, meaning it diverted money originally allocated to the U by the Utah Legislature to train physicians toward other purposes.

Combined with a campus-wide 9 percent fund reduction, the medical school had to wrestle with a $12.1 million total slash of funding, making it “virtually impossible to provide quality education to 102 students,” said Chris Nelson, spokesman for U Health Care.

“To put so much time and effort into getting where I am and having med school taken away is frustrating,” Shelton said.

The School of Medicine did not reject Shelton, but placed him on its waiting list, meaning that if this year had been like any other, Shelton might now be celebrating his acceptance.
Nelson said the cuts and class size reduction were beyond the power of the institution. The medical school worked hard with the Utah Legislature to fight the loss of funding, he said.

But with the budget slowing to a trickle, people and departments have had to tighten their belts one more notch and accept less money.

“Being rejected straight out is one thing, but being rejected because of funding issues just sucks,” Shelton said.

Reducing the annual number of doctors trained by the U by 20 percent affects more than just students’ career goals. Utah is facing a physician shortage, and it’s serious, said David Sundwall, executive director of the Utah Department of Health.

“Their output should be a minimum of 100 students, if not double,” Sundwall said. Primary care, including family practice, general pediatric and general internist physicians represent the steepest shortage, but it can also often take weeks to see a specialist in Utah, he said.

Overall, the state boasts a meager 170 physicians per 100,000 citizens, compared to the national average of 240 to 270, according to David Squire, executive director of the Utah Medical Education Council.

“The medical school has an obligation to the state to train physicians,” and the decision will “harm the health of the state,” he said.

Opponents of the decreased class size present a number of alternatives.

Shelton said he would not mind paying more for tuition and “a higher student-to-teacher ratio is fine in my book,” he said. Just getting into medical school would be enough.

But Nelson said that tuition would increase exponentially to fit the need. Doing the math shows that $12 million dollars spread among approximately 400 students would place an additional $30,000 on the backs of each student, in addition to a 15 percent increase in tuition already approved for next year.

Using research money to fund more seats is virtually impossible because the funding is tied to specific research. Nelson said the school moves money around as much as possible to help students, but the system is not flexible enough to transfer money from one pot to another.

While the state and the medical school try to sort out a shrinking budget and a growing need for physicians, students line up in droves to apply for medical school.

Nelson reported that of the 1,300 applicants last year, 500 were deemed qualified for admittance according to the U selection criteria, but only 102 started classes in the Fall Semester. Next year, it will welcome even fewer.

“It’s hard to hear,” said Samuel Thomas, a sophomore Russian major planning to apply to medical school. He said he feels the exhausting, time-consuming process of getting into medical school will become even more competitive, and he imagines “a lot more students looking to go out of state.”

Squire said roughly 60 percent of physicians will practice medicine within 20 minutes of where they completed their residency requirement, which isn’t always the same area they completed medical school.

Increasing the number of residencies in the state will do the most to solve the shortage, but that does not diminish the gravity of cutting seats at the medical school, Squire said. Educational roots are the most influential factor to determine where physicians will eventually practice, with residency and family ties ranking first and second, respectively, he said.

Despite setbacks, Shelton will not give up on his goal. He plans to take the medical school admissions test again and hope for better results next year.

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Tyler Cobb

Although pre-med classes such as this organic chemistry class remain full, the U medical school was forced to cut its enrollment for the next school year. But a tobacco tax increase could help the U restore its class size.