garden at KUMC

Donors open doors for medical education in north-central Kansas

Salina Regional Health Center
The KU School of Medicine site will be housed in the Salina Regional Health Center.

Two gifts totaling $300,000 will help establish a four-year KU School of Medicine site in Salina, Kan. Private support was provided by longtime Russell, Kan., physician Earl Merkel, M.D., and his wife, Kathleen, as well as the Salina Regional Health Foundation.

Barbara Atkinson, executive vice chancellor of the KU Medical Center and executive dean of the KU School of Medicine, said 90 of the state’s 105 counties are medically underserved. In addition, 30 percent of Kansas physicians are 55 or older and may retire in the next 10 to 15 years, adding to the problem. “This generous support from Dr. and Mrs. Merkel and the Salina Regional Health Foundation will help us meet our goal of easing the severe shortage of primary care physicians in rural Kansas,” Atkinson said.

The Merkels provided a $75,000 gift that will help develop the Salina site’s curriculum and create a gross anatomy lab. The Salina Regional Health Foundation’s gift of $225,000 will support faculty, curriculum development and preparation of classroom, laboratory and office space.

Having practiced medicine in Russell since 1958, Earl Merkel knows all too well the challenges caused by a shortage of rural physicians. He and Kathleen have tried to recruit physicians to Russell, going so far as to establish an endowed scholarship for KU medical students who hail from Salina westward.

“We’re glad to see that western Kansas has been recognized as an area of medical need,” Merkel said. “The KU School of Medicine site in Salina seems like a good way to get students, and hopefully, later, more physicians, out here in this area.”

The Salina Regional Health Foundation’s gift dovetails with its mission to improve the health of the regional community, said Dave Sellers, chairman of the foundation’s board of directors.

“It’s a win-win situation,” Sellers said. “We’ll be educating more doctors, and many of those doctors will go on to practice medicine in rural areas.”

Heidi Chumley, M.D., KU School of Medicine senior associate dean for medical education, said the Salina program will admit students from rural areas who are more likely to return to rural areas after being trained in a rural area. “I look at this as a pilot program,” Chumley said. “Hopefully, 10 to 20 years from now, this will lead to similar programs being established farther into western Kansas.”

Chumley said the Salina program is part of a larger plan that also includes extending the KU School of Medicine-Wichita from a two-year program, attended by medical students in their third and fourth years, to a four-year program. The Salina school of medicine site, which will be housed in space provided by the Salina Regional Health Center, will admit eight students as early as the fall of 2011, and eight each year after that. After four years, the school will maintain an enrollment of 32.

Salina oncologist William Cathcart-Rake, M.D., will direct the Salina program. A portion of the curriculum will be provided through distance learning, including interactive video and podcasts. He described the program as an amalgam of traditional learning — lectures, didactic presentations, readings and laboratory work with a heavy dose of problem-based or patient-based learning.

“Medical school is not easy and it’s not intended to be easy,” Cathcart-Rake said. “We hope we can make it exciting for them, challenging for them, interesting for them and that they learn. The bottom line is, we want to turn out good physicians.”

The gifts will be managed by KU Endowment, the official fundraising and fund-management foundation for KU. Founded in 1891, KU Endowment was the first foundation of its kind at a U.S. public university.

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