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Is the UT System Preparing for a New Medical School?

Speculation has gone on for year whether Austin will get its own teaching hospital. Photo By Daniel Reese.
Daniel Reese/KUT News
Speculation has gone on for year whether Austin will get its own teaching hospital. Photo By Daniel Reese.

Lawmakers and local leaders are hopeful a plan unanimously adopted at Thursday's University of Texas System Board of Regents meeting means they could finally get what they've long been waiting for: a new medical school.

One of the elements of the plan outlined by Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa is to "advance medical education and research in Austin." Even before Thursday's meeting ended, state Sen. Kirk Watson issued a press release reading between the lines, calling for the creation of a flagship health science center and medical school in Austin. "Within the next 30 days, I plan to offer a path — and a challenge for our community — to build on [Cigarroa's] statement so we realize these goals that so many of us have shared for so long," Watson said. "It’s time for Austin to come together and act, creating a flagship initiative that can fortify our future and lead the world in the fields of medical education, healthcare and bioscience."

Cigarroa's plan also included a $30 million investment in South Texas to boost the number of graduates in science, technology, math and engineering, as well as the caliber of teachers in those fields. One-third of that funding will go toward the establishment of a 15,000-square-foot simulated teaching hospital. Money will also go toward establishing a biomedical research program and boosting residency opportunities in the area.

In laying out the plan, Dr. Kenneth Shine, the UT System's vice chancellor for health affairs, explained that the rate of doctors per capita lags in Texas generally, and is particularly low in South Texas. "This plan will respond to unmet needs in health care as well as improve opportunities for economic development in the region by enhancing the education of the health care workforce, including physicians, and strengthening research in diabetes and obesity," he said in a statement.

Juliet Garcia, the president of the University of Texas-Brownsville, which — as part of the plan — also gets the go-ahead to establish itself as a stand-alone four-year university, said the infrastructure was deliberately being laid for a new medical school in the region. "It's going to happen, so we'd better get ready," she said. "The Rio Grande Valley is at the epicenter of the future of the state of Texas."

Cigarroa's plan calls for increased collaboration among UT institutions within the Austin and South Texas regions to improve the state's health care. He said he'd be putting an equal amount of attention on addressing the issues in both regions. "It's a two part approach," he said.

As for whether Austin or South Texas would be getting a new UT-affiliated medical school first, Cigarroa declined to offer a prediction.

Reeve Hamilton has interned at The Nation and The Texas Observer, for which he covered the 2009 legislative session. Most recently, he was a desk assistant at The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer. A Houston native, he has a bachelor's degree in English from Vanderbilt University.