Vegas News

An enduring legacy for Las Vegans

John Locher/AP

Doctors and health care workers with the UNLV School of Medicine suit up in personal protective equipment before taking patients at a drive thru coronavirus testing site Tuesday, March 24, 2020, in Las Vegas. UNLV Medicine, the clinical arm of the UNLV School of Medicine, started conducting COVID-19 testing by appointment for people who meet the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines.

“We are writing to share good news. At its February 2021 meeting, the LCME (Liaison Committee on Medical Education) voted to grant full accreditation to the medical education program of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas School of Medicine.”

With that short email message, issued Feb. 19, so began an enduring legacy for the people of Las Vegas: the ongoing, robust transformation of health care in Southern Nevada.

That good news from LCME underpins decades of debate, musing, contemplation, deliberation, planning, opening and, finally, operating an allopathic medical school in Southern Nevada.

No, it has not come easy. But nothing worthwhile ever does.

Former U.S. Congressman James Bilbray, who represented Nevada’s 1st congressional district from 1987 to 1995, remembers that during his time as a Nevada System of Higher Education (NSHE) regent in the late 1960s, there was spirited debate about whether Nevada’s first medical school should be located in Reno or Las Vegas. What turned the tide in favor of Reno, he says, was the promise of a sizable gift from a foundation.

“Even then I saw the way Southern Nevada was growing meant that a medical school should be located in Las Vegas,” the 81-year old Bilbray said recently. “I knew Las Vegas, given its leading role in entertainment, was going to continue to grow.”

The University of Nevada School of Medicine was founded in Reno in 1969. For 48 years, Las Vegas was a clinical campus of UNR, providing real-world clinical patient experiences for medical students. Meanwhile, as Bilbray predicted, the population of Las Vegas continued to balloon, growing from a city of 125,000 in 1970 to a metropolitan area of nearly 2 million by 2011 and nearly 3 million by 2017. That explosive growth, which saw the area become a mecca for job seekers, also had a down side: Las Vegas ranked nationally near the bottom for physicians per capita in both primary and specialty care.

Former Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman, concerned that the Legislature did not address medical care issues in Southern Nevada, worked during the early part of the 21st century to bring satellite medical clinics from the Cleveland Clinic and the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center to Las Vegas. While Goodman was unsuccessful, he did get the attention of local physicians and community leaders who did not like the idea of outsiders taking over health care in Las Vegas.

Dr. Mark Doubrava, a Las Vegas ophthalmologist, was one of the voices saying Southern Nevada needed a homegrown solution to the lack of physicians, and suggested a medical school as the answer. By 2014, the establishment of a community advisory board for the school helped lead the Nevada Board of Regents to approve initial funding for the medical school. On June 11, 2015, then-Gov. Brian Sandoval signed Senate Bill 514 into law. It provided startup funding for the medical school.

“It was gratifying to see community leaders clamoring to participate because they all wanted to improve access to medical care in this community,” said Doubrava, now chairman of the Board of Regents.

Additionally, any questions about whether Las Vegas really needed an allopathic medical school were erased by a 2013 study conducted by Tripp Umbach, a national consulting firm involved in the health care sector. The study found that a medical school in Las Vegas could have a $1.2 billion annual economic impact and could add 8,000 jobs to the Southern Nevada economy by 2030.

Soon afterward, Dr. Barbara Atkinson, who had headed medical schools in Kansas and Pennsylvania, was hired as the planning dean for a new medical school at UNLV, and the school officially applied to the accrediting agency, the LCME, to be a candidate school shortly thereafter. In 2016, the school received preliminary accreditation and recruited its first class. In 2019, the school passed its second accreditation hurdle, receiving provisional accreditation. And now, the school is finally fully accredited, on schedule.

What does this mean for Las Vegas?

Already, with the COVID-19 pandemic, the school was the first to provide curbside testing, the first to coordinate convalescent plasma as a treatment strategy, and is a leader in the vaccination efforts for our community, having vaccinated over 45,000 people. The school is about to graduate its first class, has expanded residency and fellowship positions, and is working to increase the number of physicians practicing in Southern Nevada. UNLV is working to start free clinics in the community in cooperation with the other health science schools including nursing, public health, dental medicine and integrative health. Research in traffic fatalities, the use of stem cells in heart disease, diabetes research, and geriatrics research are providing state-of-the-art care for our community. And finally, the economic benefits of academic medicine are becoming a reality as the school of medicine works with the community to diversify our economy.

Las Vegas deserves excellent health care. Currently, many techniques that are standards of care are not available in our community. These include liver transplantation, heart and lung transplantation, and bone marrow transplantation; procedures that are critical to the care of both children and adults. Further, the use of therapies such as CAR-T cells to treat cancer, standard in most communities our size, are not available here.

It is our hope moving forward that our fully accredited school of medicine, coupled with the other health professions schools at UNLV, and our major hospital affiliate UMC, will form an academic health center that brings new multispecialty clinics and therapies to our community. We look forward to serving you. It is an honor.

Dr. Marc J. Kahn is dean of the UNLV School of Medicine. Paul Harasim is the school’s editorial associate director.

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