Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa won unanimous approval from the UT System Board of Regents on Thursday for a framework expanding higher education. One of the framework’s goals, to “advance medical education and research in Austin,” could be a major boon for our campus. UT should establish its own foundations for Austin’s first medical school.
Cigarroa’s health care education-related goals pertain to Austin and the Rio Grande Valley. The rapidly-growing valley has historically also been one of the state’s most impoverished and medically underserved. Taking its cues from the multimillion-dollar investment plans in Cigarroa’s framework, UT-Brownsville will use the funds to build a simulation teaching hospital, create a biomedical research program and increase residency slots in a deliberate effort to establish a medical school there.
The chancellor’s plan also redirects resources to UT and stipulates the goal to “advance medical education and research in Austin.” State Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, interpreted these guidelines as an endorsement of an Austin-based medical school, and he issued a press release stating he’d issue his own plan to our community to get ready for such an institution.
A “UT-Austin College of Medicine” would have tremendous support from its links to the downtown hospitals and departments on the Austin campus. Our nursing school, of which I am a student, is immensely fortunate to have two hospitals (Brackenridge and St. David’s) within blocks of our campus building. UT-Austin medical students would certainly appreciate the insight from our students in related health care disciplines, such as nursing and pharmacy.
Austin’s national stature as one of the fastest growing cities makes UT’s lack of a medical school all the more glaring. Among the 10 largest public university campuses by enrollment, only ours and Arizona State University lack an affiliated medical school. Among the nation’s 25 most populated cities, Austin shares the dubious distinction with San Jose and Charlotte as the only cities lacking a medical school. And, of course, Austin remains the only city in Texas with more than 500,000 residents that lacks a medical school.
There are many policies the state can implement to address the chronic inequities in access to health care. Texas needs to follow the cascade of other states nationwide in removing barriers on advanced practice nurses that restrict their full and autonomous scope of practice. It should meaningfully restructure Medicaid payments so the program’s patients do not lose access to health care providers.
But increasing the supply of physicians also remains a critical target for Central Texas. According to the Texas Department of Health, Travis County is partially designated as an area with a shortage of primary care health professionals. Adjacent Williamson and Hays counties have been designated as “medically underserved” because of the ratio of physicians to people.
As the stream of new residents flocking to Austin, Georgetown and Round Rock flows unabated, the physician shortage will only get worse. UT should take the lead in securing funding for a medical school campus building, residency slots and medical faculty to ensure long-overdue growth and service to the community. If UT-Brownsville, whose endowment is a tiny fraction of ours, can show remarkable determination in its quest for a medical school, why can’t we?
Samian is a nursing graduate student.