The UNC-Chapel Hill School of Medicine will expand its medical school to the UNC-system campuses in Asheville and Charlotte.
The expansion, announced Tuesday, will allow UNC-CH to train more physicians with a focus on training for practice in rural areas.
The plan was developed in 2007 as a means of combating an expected shortage of physicians, but was put on hold due to an unfavorable economy in 2008.
Despite continued budget cuts, officials decided to go ahead with the expansion because of a growing need for doctors.
“This year the physician shortage is going to happen whether or not the economy is in shape, so we decided not to wait and begin expanding gradually,” said Karen McCall, vice president of public affairs and marketing for UNC Hospitals.
UNC-CH will increase its medical school class size from 160 students to 170 in 2011 and 180 students in 2012 by sending third- and fourth-year students to Asheville and Charlotte to complete their clinical education.
The full expansion could eventually have a medical school class size of 230 students.
Students will be able to indicate a preference for which campus they would like to attend, and the requested school of medicine will try to accommodate them, said Stephanie Crayton, spokeswoman for UNC Health Care, which oversees the School of Medicine.
McCall said a pilot program currently has 10 medical students enrolled at the Asheville campus and 22 at the Charlotte campus.
“Students have been rotating to both of these campuses for a number of years, so there was an infrastructure there of very qualified faculty,” she said. “The infrastructure was right and there is really good research that shows that people will stay and practice where they train.”
Crayton said Mission Health System has committed $7 million to establish a center at the Asheville campus. At the Charlotte campus, Carolinas HealthCare System will spend $4 million to renovate facilities.
She said UNC-CH will also shoulder some costs by educating students for the first few years.
“Having been admitted into the School of Medicine, UNC (Chapel Hill) is incurring some costs there, and then when students go to Asheville or Charlotte, that’s when those campuses begin to absorb costs,” Crayton said.
The cost of the expansion is not going to be addressed as an issue in the short term, McCall said.
“Everybody is trying to absorb incremental costs this year, but everyone feels if we were to expand to the full expansion, additional funding would be needed in terms of more space for classrooms and faculty,” she said.
So far, McCall said, the plan for expansion has received positive feedback from the students already at Asheville and Charlotte.
“Not only are the students very happy, but they are testing very well with this curriculum,” she said.
The expansion could also have a positive effect on UNC-CH’s reputation, she said.
“It is a very well-known school of medicine now. There is a new specialization in areas that we are already strong in, and we are also meeting the needs of the state, which is one of our primary missions,” McCall said.
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