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U. welcomes first expanded class of medical students

SALT LAKE CITY — With a shrug of her shoulders, Vanessa Wall slid into the white doctor's coat and flashed a smile at the audience.

Wall and the 121 other newly christened medical students who walked the stage at the White Coat Ceremony on Friday are the first expanded class made possible by SB42, legislation passed in 2013 meant to address the shortage of physicians in Utah.

"For us, it was really important because if you look at the statistics, we're among the lowest states in the nation for primary care providers, and we're one of the fastest-growing," said Dr. Vivian Lee, dean of the University of Utah School of Medicine.

The shortage of physicians is a problem nationwide, but it's particularly severe in Utah, which ranks 46th in the number of physicians per population, according to Lee.

William Shiflett, student affairs manager at the medical school, said that alarmed school officials.

"We're the only medical school in Utah, and we're really the only one in the Intermountain West," he said.

In 2010, funding cuts resulted in the U. decreasing its medical class size from 102 students a year to 82.

The U. lobbied state lawmakers to provide funding not only to restore their class sizes but to also expand them.

When SB42 passed, the school received $10 million in funding to expand its class size to 102 students in 2013 and 122 students by 2015.

It also stipulated that the additional slots be given to students with strong ties to Utah and who are likely to stay in the state after completing their schooling.

For Wall, who grew up in South Jordan but went to the University of Notre Dame in Indiana, the ceremony was a homecoming of sorts.

Wall, who has family in Utah, said she loves the not-too-big, not-too-small feeling of Salt Lake City and plans to stay.

"I want to live here forever," she said. "Well, for a long time."

Fellow first-year student Laura Wolf, who grew up in upstate New York but attended school at Westminster College, said she chose the U. for "the mountains, the tuition, the fantastic school with the awesome dean."

She'd like to specialize in emergency medicine and stay in Salt Lake City so she can deliver care to rural places like Wyoming and Idaho.

But Wolf said she's also considering specializing in infectious diseases and traveling internationally.

Adding 40 more students a year won't completely fill the physician gap in Utah, Lee acknowledged. She also acknowledged it will be years before lawmakers know if the program bears fruit: The class of 2019 has seven years of schooling and residency ahead of them before they choose where to settle down.

But, Lee said, it will help.

"This isn't an overnight solution," she said. "We don't want to get to a point where it's a crisis."


Twitter: DaphneChen_