On Aug. 17, UT System Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa unveiled plans to establish a medical school in the Rio Grande Valley. That announcement was news to most Texans, but Valley residents and politicians knew the news followed years of their lobbying and planning. The “medical school blueprint,” which explains how the Valley school will operate, does not specifically indicate how it will be funded. Instead, the purpose of the blueprint is to signal in no uncertain terms the UT System’s intention to establish a permanent medical presence in the Valley.
On May 3, the regents announced plans to open a new medical school in Austin. And while it may seem unwise to invest in two medical schools costing hundreds of millions of dollars each at a time when every other news story about higher education focuses on its skyrocketing cost or plunging operating funds, the two schools are smart investments in the future of UT and this state.
Texas’ relatively low unemployment figures have attracted people in search of jobs from across the country. While the shiny new apartment towers rising up just blocks away from campus in downtown are a testament to Austin’s ability to attract a highly skilled, relatively wealthy workforce, the state’s fastest growing region is the less affluent Lower Rio Grande Valley, where average incomes are only slightly more than half of the state’s average income. According to State Senator Eddie Lucio, Jr., a politician from Brownsville who has been working to establish a medical school in the Lower Valley region for years, residents in his senatorial district suffer from higher rates of diabetes, cancer and obesity than other Texans. Due to lack of access to advanced medical facilities, and the region’s endemic poverty, many Valley residents’ medical conditions go untreated or under-treated.
The establishment of a medical school in the Valley will help to improve the situation not only by providing a place for Valley residents to seek treatment, but also by graduating physicians and surgeons who will practice in the area. According to the Texas Medical Association, the state reports a ratio of only 157 doctors per 100,000 residents, far below the 220 doctors per 100,000 reported for the nation. Texas’ ratio is not likely to improve as more people move to the state. Many of those new Texans are taking low-wage jobs that do not provide health insurance. Without the ability to train more doctors and keep them in the regions of the state where the need for their services is most urgent, Texas could fall even further behind in national health rankings. Because doctors tend to stay in the communities where they complete their residency programs, the addition of a medical school will mean a welcome influx of physicians to the Valley region.
While Austin enjoys a robust health care infrastructure compared to the Valley’s, the city and UT students will still benefit from the development of a leading medical school and associated research hospital. The school will not only increase access to health care for residents of the Central Texas region who travel to Austin for advanced medical treatment, but will also replace the aging and overtaxed facilities at University Medical Center – Brackenridge. Additionally, among the fifteen highest-ranked universities in the country, UT Austin is only one of four without an associated medical school in the same city. The addition of such a facility would build on the university’s existing relationship with the Dell Pediatric Research Institute, and would serve to strengthen UT’s already highly ranked nursing, pharmacy, biology and education programs.
As students interested in boosting the prestige of our degrees and as Texans concerned with the future competitiveness and well-being of our fellow Texans, we all ought to champion efforts to establish the schools. The support of the Board of Regents is an important step forward, but several questions remain to be answered, particularly regarding how the schools will be funded. Austin voters will face this question in the Nov. 6 elections when they will decide whether or not to approve a multi-million dollar bond issue to help to fund a medical school and research hospital in Austin. Despite the cost, medical schools in Austin and the Valley will improve the health and competitiveness of the state.