UC Merced continues push to establish a medical school

Though its first graduates won't be doctors for at least 13 years, the University of California at Merced's medical school is plugging along.

Dean of Natural Sciences Maria Pallavicini gave a presentation at the statewide UC regents' bimonthly meeting Thursday morning in Los Angeles. UC Merced officials will seek regent approval of their efforts at the board's January meeting.

Each UC campus strives for its own distinction -- UCLA is known for medicine, Berkeley for engineering, Davis for agriculture. UC Merced officials are pursuing a medical school to improve the San Joaquin Valley's lack of access to health care. In the near future, 15 percent of California's population will live in the valley, Pallavicini said at Thursday's meeting, which was streamed live over the Internet.

If efforts are successful at the Merced and Riverside campuses, seven of 10 UCs will have medical schools.

From Stockton to Bakersfield, there are 87 primary care physicians for every 100,000 residents -- drastically lower than the statewide average of 126 per 100,000 residents, according to a staff report. A fifth of valley residents are children, and common health conditions include asthma, diabetes and coronary heart disease.

At Thursday's meeting, regents acknowledged that funding is an issue, joking that "farmers can be stingy" but probably will support health care. UC Merced officials will need to raise $100 million during the program's infancy.

"We're enthusiastic about it. We got UC Merced up and running," said Pallavicini, who's been with the campus since 2002 and once worked at UC San Francisco's medical center. "It fills a very important need."

Some regents said they'd like to see the universities increase the number of nurses educated at the campuses.

With two years of planning under their belt, UC Merced officials expect to enroll the medical school's first students in 2013. The first doctors would graduate and enter practice about 2020.

UC Merced officials have completed a preliminary proposal and business plan that is under review by campus faculty and medical school experts. UC Merced will partner heavily with UC San Francisco's Fresno satellite campus, as well as with UC San Francisco and UC Berkeley. In the early years, UC Merced medical school students will complete much of their work and internships in Fresno. Officials have no plan to include a teaching hospital.

Offering a medical school regionally should keep doctors in the valley -- 80 percent of graduates stay in the area where they complete both classes and residencies, according to a study Pallavicini cited.

The school also could boost campus enrollment. Thirty-five percent of UC Merced's students are biology majors planning on pursuing a medical degree, Pallavicini said.

Bee staff writer Michelle Hatfield can be reached at mhatfield@modbee.com or 578-2339.