Can This Plan Make Our Med School Great?

Illustration by Thomas Speak

Illustration by Thomas Speak

The University of Nevada School of Medicine is an icon of Nevada’s north-south civil war over public-program funding. The school’s dean, Thomas L. Schwenk, took less than a year to figure that out and another year to develop a more productive paradigm. In 2013, he’ll begin the long process of getting his plan put in place.

“The state spent so many years fighting over where the school should be, and it didn’t determine what the school should be,” Schwenk says of the 40-year-old institution he took over in February 2011 after leaving the University of Michigan Medical School. “I don’t have a dog in that fight … My job is to get the school on the right track and let the politics take care of themselves.”

The current situation, in which Schwenk says the medical school has become practically “invisible,” grew out of regional interests coupled with an uneven distribution of resources. Las Vegas is home to the state’s only publicly owned hospital, University Medical Center, and the bulk of its population, so it made sense to put the clinical teaching and practice here. The Reno campus of the University of Nevada, meanwhile, has more donors and public support, so it has the facility for academic teaching and scientific research.

“It was a naturalistic development, without much thought about how we would connect what was being done in the two cities, or how we should connect what was being done with the rural areas,” Schwenk says.

He wants to develop what he calls the three campuses, Las Vegas, Reno and the rurals, according to the needs of each community. He’ll fill in each one’s gaps, guided by a strategy for overall growth. For instance, Las Vegas needs a building for academic instruction and scientific research, so Schwenk is focusing his efforts here on gathering consensus around the importance of the medical school to the community, much like boosters did for The Smith Center. Reno, meanwhile, needs clinical practice and instruction, so he’s working with Renown Health and local physicians to create that program.

If the plan goes well, it could eventually lead to one large statewide medical school with two campuses—or two separate schools altogether. Either way, it’s a tall order with a humongous price tag. The planned six-floor, 270,000-square-foot facility in Las Vegas would cost $220 million, and it’s just one aspect of the overall project. Schwenk will need the buy-in of legislators, the business community and state citizens, as well as the generosity of philanthropists. “Clearly, this will require some kind of public-private partnership,” he says.

Schwenk has already begun drumming up support. A couple of weeks before winter break, he met with the university’s Board of Regents to present his plan. He expects it will take a couple of years to hammer out the specifics with key players, meaning the plan won’t be ready for the state’s consideration until the 2015 legislative session. But he’s not daunted. He has a clear vision of where the school could—and should—be 10 years from now.

“Medical schools attract outstanding physicians, new expertise and researchers developing new techniques and programs,” Schwenk says. “We’re [still] too small to be the major player we should be.”

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