Foundation seeks to build medical school in Fort Smith

by The City Wire staff ( 24 views 

Some of the revenue from the 2009 purchase of Fort Smith-based Sparks Health System could be used to help build and operate a medical school in Fort Smith and generate an up to $100 million a year economic impact.

When Naples, Fla.-based Health Management Associates (HMA) acquired Sparks in a deal valued at $138 million, part of the money was used to create the Fort Smith Regional Healthcare Foundation. Foundation initiatives include supporting scholarships for individuals seeking advanced medical training, the Community Dental Clinic in Fort Smith, health education programs in area schools, and other medical training options.

According to Foundation Chairman Kyle Parker, the foundation now has around $50 million and the board is investigating the feasibility of an osteopathic medical school that would, once fully operational, serve 600 students. Osteopathic medicine, according to the American Osteopathic Association, the practice is “a complete system of medical care with a philosophy that combines the needs of the patient with the current practice of medicine, surgery and obstetrics; that emphasizes the interrelationship between structure and function; and that has an appreciation of the body's ability to heal itself.”

Not all of the $50 million would be available for the school, but enough of it to make the concept worth pursuing, Parker said.  The Commission on Osteopathic College Accreditation (COCA) has been contacted by the foundation, which is the first step in the process. COCA requires several steps to happen before any mention that such a school will open. To announce a certain plan prior to a COCA review is considered “recruitment of students” and is verboten in the industry.

The foundation has hired two consultants who will be in Fort Smith in early January to begin work on a feasibility study. Parker said the study should be complete no later than April. If the foundation board moves forward with the plan, they then seek approval to gain accreditation with COCA and they hire a chief academic officer/dean. Within six months of hiring the dean, the foundation could technically break ground on the school.

Parker would not say where the school may be built, but did acknowledge that the school could open by the fall of 2015 barring any surprises in the feasibility study and based upon COCA approval. Parker acknowledged two false starts with other groups on a school plan, but is confident this latest effort has legs.

“We’ve talked to some medical schools … and we’re not closing any doors from that standpoint. But with each of our visits, we have become more and more confident about our abilities, if it’s feasible, and I have to stress that we’re merely working to see if it’s feasible at this point … but we are confident that if it is (feasible) then we have the people or know where to get the people to make this a success,” Parker said.

The osteopathy school plan has some early supporters. The Community Health Centers of Arkansas, which provides medical care in Arkansas’ rural areas, supports the idea, according to Tom Webb, executive director of the foundation. The foundation press release issued Wednesday (Dec. 18) included this statement from the CHCA Board of Directors: “CHCA supports the development and implementation of the osteopathic school and residency program which will help build the pipeline of osteopathic physicians' availability for rural and underserved communities.”

The osteopathy notification sent to COCO includes endorsements from the Arkansas Osteopathic Medical Association (AOMA), the Arkansas Society of the American College of Osteopathic Family Physicians (ACOFP), and the Arkansas Osteopathic Foundation (AOF).

“FSRHF’s effort to establish an osteopathic medical school parallels our vision for improving health care in the state. The strong need in the area combined with community support contributed to sweeping osteopathic association support,” Frazier Edwards, executive director of the AOMA, said in the foundation statement.

Following are other notes in the foundation statement.
• There are 30 colleges of osteopathic medicine (COMs), offering instruction at 40 locations in 28 states. There is not an osteopathy school in Arkansas.

• Twenty-four of the COMs are private; six are public. Should the development of an osteopathic school in Fort Smith happen, it would be a private, non-profit institution and not dependent on continuous public funds from the state.

• Approximately 60% of practicing osteopathic physicians (DO) practice in the primary care specialties of family medicine, general internal medicine, pediatrics, and obstetrics and gynecology.

• Osteopathic physicians (DOs) could help fill a critical need by practicing in rural and other medically underserved communities.

• Arkansas is ranked 48th among states in physicians per capita based on the 2010 Healthy Workforce in Arkansas Study by the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences (UAMS) Center for Rural Health.

• The latest data from Arkansas Department of Health’s Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System indicates the greatest percentage of adults 18 and older with no personal doctor reside on the entire western side of the state.

“If this happens, if we’re able to meet that feasibility line, I’m telling you that this will move the needle in the Fort Smith area” in terms of healthcare, Parker said.

He added that the school could eventually be a feeder school for hospitals and clinics in Northwest Arkansas and other adjacent metro areas.

Parker said the foundation is working with the Fort Smith Regional Chamber of Commerce, the city of Fort Smith and other groups on the medical school concept.