Community Columns

Valley schools turning out more medical professionals

I join The Bee in applauding Gov. Schwarzenegger's support for the University of California at Merced medical school. The San Joaquin Valley suffers from one of the worst medical services shortages in the nation. According to UC Merced statistics, it has 24 percent fewer primary care physicians and an even greater deficit of specialists than the rest of California. A medical school at UC Merced will help address these critical problems.

Evidence shows that when medical professionals train in an area, they are more likely to stay in that area. About 88 percent of our nursing graduates at California State University, Stanislaus, remain in the region to practice nursing. The same is likely to be true for physicians and other medical professionals. Therefore, it is crucial that the valley has its own state-of-the-art training facilities and education programs for medicine.

As dean of the college of human and health sciences at CSU Stanislaus, one of my most urgent tasks is working with our faculty, health providers and other educational institutions to increase the number of nurses in the region. As with physicians, there is an extreme nursing shortage in the valley.

Merced County has one of the worst nurse-to- population ratios in the state -- a grim 257 registered nurses for every 100,000 people. This compares with the national average of 825 RNs per 100,000.

To address these work force shortages, CSU Stanislaus just admitted 40 nursing students this spring, joining the 40 who traditionally enter our pre-licensure Bachelor of Science in nursing program in the fall to double the number of nurses graduating each year.

Additionally, we revised the course work in order to accelerate the timeframe in which registered nurses can earn a bachelor's degree that will enable them to take leadership positions in their places of employment. The college of human and health sciences is working with the community to solve other health-related work force shortages as well, such as speech therapy.

In the fall, we will launch our new Master of Science in nursing degree program, which will help alleviate the severe shortage in nursing faculty. On average, there are nearly two faculty positions vacant in each department of nursing throughout the United States, which presents a continuing challenge to the expansion of undergraduate programs. These vacancies are largely the result of too few nurses with academic training at the master's and doctorate levels, and also the result of faculty salaries that are much lower than what nurses earn in clinical settings.

New facilities, such as a UC Merced Medical School, could help produce more nursing faculty along with increasing the supply of physicians.

Health needs of the valley go far beyond physical health. The valley is beset by crises in mental health practice and human services. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has documented the increased incidence of autism occurring nationwide. Data show that one in 150 children may have some form of this spectrum disorder.

CSU Stanislaus faculty, alumni and students have been involved in developing effective programs for treating autism and have been leaders in publishing research on the effectiveness of early intensive behavioral interventions.

Other mental and behavioral problems, including substance abuse (especially methamphetamine abuse) also beset the valley. Faculty from social work, child development, nursing and psychology have been hosting meetings of the Stanislaus Area Regional Partnership, a mental health work force development task force bringing together educational institutions, public agencies and nonprofit agencies. The aim is to identify critical mental health needs and to develop regional solutions to producing a well-trained mental health work force.

Adding a major medical school in the valley that is focused on the unique needs of our highly diverse region is crucial to the physical, mental and, ultimately, economic well-being of our populace. Our public leaders need to continue to show their strong support for this project in the face of stiff competition from the southern part of the state for increasingly scarce dollars.