A prescription for local medical education

On Sunday, the Austin American-Statesman reported that the Seton Family of Hospitals pledged up to $250 million for a new Austin hospital to replace the University Medical Center at Brackenridge. Brackenridge is operated by Seton under a lease from its publicly-funded owner, Central Health. This new hospital could serve as a teaching hospital and offer support for an Austin-based medical school operated by the UT System.

The UT System currently operates six health campuses in Dallas, Houston, Galveston, San Antonio and Tyler. Four of these have associated medical schools that in total enrolled 912 medical students in 2011, according to the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board. A new Austin medical school operated by the UT System would move Austin off the list of largest U.S. cities without a medical school.

It would also help alleviate a problem noted by the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board in a recent report on medical education in Texas: A looming lack of Texas residency program capacity for graduates of Texas medical schools.

The board, at the request of the 82nd Legislature, examined residency programs in Texas and concluded that 63 graduates of Texas medical schools will have to leave the state to complete residency programs by 2014 if no new programs are added, according to The Texas Tribune.

The board further noted that medical students who leave the state for residency programs are unlikely to return.

According to a survey conducted by the American Medical Association and cited by the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board in its report, physicians generally prefer to practice in the state their residency was completed in.

This should worry the Legislature and governor because the state currently spends $168,000 supporting the education of each medical student who graduates from a Texas medical school, including the private Baylor College of Medicine in Houston. The state’s commitment to medical education in Texas should not end at graduation. A new medical school in Austin with expanded capacity for residents would give the state another opportunity to give every medical student an opportunity to stay.

Greg Hartman, president and CEO of Seton Medical Center Austin and University Medical Center Brackenridge, said that the agreement Sunday to construct a new hospital “was not about UT at all,” according to The Daily Texan. But the deal has implications for UT and the prospects for a future medical school here. In a non-binding letter signed Saturday, members of the Central Health Board of Managers agreed to collaborate with Seton to, among other things, “support a medical school under the auspices of the University of Texas at Austin,” according to the Austin American-Statesman.

The construction of a new medical school in Austin and an associated increase in residency programs at a new Seton-sponsored hospital would improve the quality of healthcare for Central Texas residents. Higher education in Texas would also benefit from increased capacity to train future doctors in a rapidly growing state. The deal between Seton and Travis County as well as the commitment from Central Health to work to create a medical school in Austin are welcome and important, both for students and for residents of Austin.