As Utah County's first medical school welcomes its inaugural class of 90 students next week, leaders say they anticipate the college will eventually launch dozens of new doctors into underserved and rural areas throughout the state.
Noorda College of Osteopathic Medicine in Provo — which has been in the works for nine years — seeks to provide a unique approach to training doctors for the future of medicine, including telemedicine.
Dr. John Dougherty, founding dean and chief academic officer, said the college is "flipping education on its head, in particular medical education."
A nontraditional approach
Noorda College of Osteopathic Medicine, or Noorda-COM, will not offer scheduled classes, Dougherty said. Instead, students will be able to view videos pre-recorded by instructors whenever works best for them in "pod" rooms with comfortable arm chairs and couches. Students will still learn, practice and get assessed in anatomy and hands-on skills in labs.
"And then the students get constant feedback. I kind of jokingly refer to it as the first multiplayer game for medical students," Dougherty said. "But it's definitely student-centric as opposed to it being faculty-centric where you've got somebody standing in front of the room."
As with traditional medical school, students who attend osteopathic speciality colleges spend two years in classrooms and two years working in hospitals. They then go on to residencies, the lengths of which are determined by their chosen specialities. Osteopathic medicine includes standard medical science like treatment with prescription drugs, surgery and the use of technology to diagnose disease and evaluate injury, but it differs with standard medicine education in that it emphasizes a specific method of "hands-on" diagnosis and treatment, as well as health promotion and disease prevention.
The college is partnering with Intermountain Healthcare, MountainStar Healthcare and Steward Health Care, where students will spend their two years of hospital training close to the college. Those who choose will be able to start a track to train them to work in rural health care. Leaders are also working with the state to potentially bring more opportunities for students to complete their residencies in Utah.
Seeking to fill a shortage
Hannah Christensen, who received her undergraduate degree in biology from Utah Valley University, said she gained an interest in becoming a physician in high school as she job-shadowed her dermatologist.
"And one of the patients we were seeing, I just really related to the experience he was having. And so that kind of really sparked it, and then my interest grew from there," she recalled.
Soon after she found out she was accepted to medical school, her family found out her mom has breast cancer. While her mom is now doing well, Christensen said the experience prompted her to consider studying oncology. But many fields of medicine seem interesting, she said.
"I'm so excited. This is something I've been working for for the last so many years, and I guess if there were anything I wanted to say to anyone who wanted to listen, was if you have a dream, you know, go for it. There's nothing holding you back, you just have to go for it," Christensen said.
She will receive her first white coat on Saturday as she and her classmates participate in the traditional white coat ceremony that marks students' entrance into clinical medical education.
Christensen said she could see herself staying and working in Utah after she finishes her education.
"Especially after being here the last six years, I really, really have fallen back in love with the community, and I can definitely see a need for physicians, especially women in medicine. I feel like female patients may be a little more comfortable going to female physicians, so I'd like to be that support to them," she added.
College leaders say they sought to attract and admit many students from within the state.
"Utah has a need for additional doctors, there's just no question about that," Dr. Norman Wright, interim president, said.
The Beehive State ranks 44th in the nation for its ratio of health care providers per 100,000 people, according to Becker's Hospital Review. Utah had 216.2 providers per 100,000 people in 2019, the last year for which that data is available.
"To know that we've started down that path of meeting a really important need, to me that's super important," Wright said.
Statistics show that medical graduates who finish their residency in the same state as their school go on to stay and work in that state, he noted.
A focus on diversity, compassion
The incoming freshman class members were not selected based on GPAs and test scores alone, but "the ability to be compassionate," Wright explained. The admissions team tried to consider students' personalities and values; and instead of a traditional written personal statement, applicants submitted videos.
"You see their personality, you get to hear their voice, you see how creative they are and what matters to them," Dougherty said.
He said each student's video played a bigger part in who got accepted than their grades.
The school received 2,100 applications to join its first class.
The county is quickly diversifying, Wright noted, and the college tried to admit students with a variety of different backgrounds and skill sets.
"I think one of the things I'm probably most proud of with this incoming class is, to my understanding anyway, in terms of proprietary schools we would be in the top 5% in terms of our diversity. And obviously, we're hoping to graduate competent and caring physicians who can relate to certain portions of our community in ways that maybe other physicians cannot. And so the fact that we're 40% women is important to me; the fact that we're 21% underrepresented populations is important not just to me, but to the whole school," Wright said.
Currently, the college shares space with its sister school Rocky Mountain University of Health Professionals at 34 E. 1700 South in Provo. An addition to be completed in 2023 will expand the college by 220,000 square feet. By then, the school will have up to 776 students.
Noorda College of Osteopathic Medicine currently has pre-accreditation status from the Commission on Osteopathic College Accreditation, but it can receive full accreditation status when its first class is ready to graduate in four years, said Dougherty, who is also an inspector for the commission.