Receiving $25 million from The Weld Trust, the biggest gift ever given to the University of Northern Colorado, will be the catalyst for bringing the new College of Osteopathic Medicine to life on campus.
The plans for the new medical college started before President of UNC Andy Feinstein took his position. Medical institutions from around Greeley contacted Feinstein to tell him there was a dire need for new doctors and medical personnel. The decision was made to have these issues addressed by housing the new school at UNC in hopes that it will hopefully attend to the physician shortage that is not only happening in our state, but across the nation.
According to the feasibility report for the osteopathic school, Colorado will need an additional 1,773 primary care physicians by 2030. This is a 49% increase from the physician workforce in 2010. Currently, Colorado only meets about 36% of the need for physicians and this percentage continues to dwindle. Another concern for Colorado is that one-third of all active doctors will be older than 65 in the next decade. This will impact how many available doctors the state has in the future since many will be retiring. There is no other way to make up this shortage besides training new doctors to replace the ones we have currently.
Founding Dean Dr. Beth Longenecker, DO, has high hopes for the new medical school that is proposed to be built where Bishop-Lehr currently sits. This is going to be the third medical school in Colorado, but the only non-profit osteopathic school in the state.
According to the program plan for the new college, osteopathic medicine is a “whole person” approach to medicine. It treats an entire person rather than just the symptoms a person is experiencing. It allows doctors to understand the root cause of an ailment better rather than treating the symptoms a patient is exhibiting at that moment.
“Doctors of Osteopathic Medicine (DOs) help patients develop attitudes and lifestyles that don’t just fight illness, but help prevent it as well,” the program plan stated. Doctors of Medicine (MDs) are considered more traditional (also known as allopathic) where doctors focus on the classical form of medicine to diagnose and treat diseases. Both MDs and DOs go through the same rigorous studying of anatomy and physiology, but each has a different philosophy to treating patients. Recently, there has been a shift in the younger generations becoming DOs rather than MDs and it might be because of the diversity of the DO field.
The opening of the new medical school will address another issue in Colorado: having virtually no doctors in underserved communities. Residents in rural areas face greater health challenges because of the distance from health care providers. This creates accessibility issues with residents having no health insurance, no available providers and health-care affordability. UNC wanted to specifically open an osteopathic medical school since DOs are more likely to work in rural communities and be primary care providers for them.
“I think we have the potential to build a truly unique medical school,” Longenecker said. “I think that being here in Northern Colorado gives us a great opportunity to impact not just the rural areas, but the state and our surrounding areas in Wyoming, Kansas and Nebraska who also have a physician need.”
With UNC being a students-first university and is striving to become a Hispanic Serving Institution, the new school will allow students who come from backgrounds that are underrepresented in the medical field to get a medical degree who otherwise wouldn’t have been able to.
“I do think that having a medical school in Greeley will make being a doctor more accessible to people,” said Ethan Boltz, a psychology major and a student looking into medical school. “For me personally, it would make my academic career much more convenient because I already live here in Greeley.”
Feinstein believes that since UNC has such a large diverse population of students, that will also translate to the medical school. Having these diverse populations could help serve community members because they’ll be served by doctors who understand their backgrounds.
“We have a history as a university that is welcoming and open that has a diverse student population,” Feinstein said. “We welcome and appreciate students from all cultures and communities. I think that will be emblematic of the work we do at the medical college.”
The new school will not be a stand-alone school like many medical schools around the country are, but rather be integrated into multiple facets at UNC. There are several undergraduate programs that the university currently offers that the new school will offer support for such as nursing, audiology, nutrition, speech language pathology, clinical mental health, health sciences, biomedical science and premedical studies.
But for the colleges that fall outside of the medical realm, Feinstein is looking at how other programs could benefit from or add to the medical school. Programs that deal with financial literacy from the business college, learning the history of medical education from anthropology majors and understanding ways to be comfortable and relaxed from the performing arts college are just a few ideas being tossed around.
“I can imagine us looking at ways to really leverage the strengths of the university in making not only UNC a better institution, but really helping support the medical college being one of the best in the country,” Feinstein said.
Longenecker has started working with the existing health schools by offering suture clinics to high school and UNC pre-med students. Local surgeons come for the suture clinics to teach students. This is offered a few times a semester.
A modern curriculum is being proposed by Longenecker. Professors will discuss learning outcomes at the beginning of every week. Tests will also be given at the beginning of the week to see where students stand on a particular subject. From there, students will go into groups to work with others to see if their peers can help fill the gaps. If there are subjects that the students are not understanding, there will presentations that deal with patient cases to help them gain that knowledge.
“My goal for the new school is I really want to see it be a place where we support our students and they thrive,” Longenecker said. “I would love our students to graduate knowing the role of primary care and our wellbeing. I want them to be really engaged with the communities that they’re working with. Not just with individual patients. I want us to be a leader in diversity in medical education.”
With the support of Greeley and the surrounding communities, the opening of the medical school will help drive the regional economy. In the feasibility report, UNC projects that the school will likely expand other health science education programs with local hospitals and private businesses by directly and indirectly supporting 420 new jobs within the region. UNC will also be hiring 80 to 100 staff members to accommodate the new school.
The university is working towards partnerships with Banner Health, UC Health and other clinical partners to provide clinical training for third- and fourth-year students in the osteopathic school. This allows for students to obtain hands-on training while also leveraging the possible outcomes of introducing new physicians to the region.
Even though UNC is only in the applicant status of becoming accredited, Longenecker is aiming high with getting the school up and running as soon as possible. Facilities will have to find places for all the storage that is currently in Bishop-Lehr while also addressing the problems of the building itself if they choose to use it for the new school. The equipment is outdated and there is possible asbestos since the building hasn’t been used for two decades. If everything goes according to plan, she hopes UNC can start recruiting students in 2025 and have the first classes start in fall 2026.