What started as an unlikely-yet-plausible vision, the UNLV School of Medicine celebrated its first day of class on July 17. As its 60 students participated in a presentation of ceremonial stethoscopes celebrating their futures in medicine, it was a long-awaited moment for higher education in Nevada.
“It was the end of the beginning of what we hope to be able to build and offer for the community,” says Maureen Schafer, chief of staff. As founding dean Barbara Atkinson’s first hire roughly three years ago, Schafer is optimistic about the school.
“We’re not your mom’s medical school, that’s for sure,” Schafer says. “Our future doctors are going to be able to be deployed anywhere, at any time, and serve any population.” That’s a need not only imperative for the varied demographics of Southern Nevada, but also for populations across the United States.
Another need she and the school’s supporters hope to meet is the high demand for local doctors. According to a 2016 study by the Physicians Workforce in Nevada, our state ranks 48th in the nation for the amount of physicians per population. With plans to grow from its current seven departments—psychiatry, internal medicine, family medicine, surgery, pediatrics, ENT and neurology—more subspecialties, as well as residencies, are in the works.
“It’s based on market need, and the good—or bad—news about this is we need everything,” Schafer says. “We’re 3,000 doctors down across all specialties, not even the ones who we have just to get to the national average. Not to be best, not to be kind of awesome, just to be average with our peer states.”
That’s where students like Toyokazu “Chris” Endo come into play. The Duke University undergraduate is among the initial group selected to attend the School of Medicine, all of whom have ties to the Silver State.
“When I was applying for medical school, UNLV happened to have their inaugural class in 2017,” says Endo, who attended Durango High School. “It was obviously on the top of my list. I want to be close to home. On top of that, they were giving out scholarships. The decision finally came down to where I was most comfortable, where I felt like I could flourish and have a support system.”
Endo was also accepted into Duke’s medical program, but cited giving back to his community as reason enough to return. Like his classmates, most of whom grew up in Las Vegas, Endo wants to practice medicine locally.
“All the statistics and data say most doctors end up staying in the community where their residency is,” Schafer says. “If they’re from Nevada to begin with, they know the community, and if they do their residency here, chances are, at the end of this whole long process, they’ll stay here and become practicing doctors. That’s the whole point of this.”
Currently, the students are attending classes in temporary facilities in the Las Vegas Medical District, which will ultimately become a part of the school. Located on a 9-acre parcel on Pinto and Shadow Lanes, the permanent education building is being donated by Clark County and is scheduled to be completed in spring 2021. The school recently received a $25 million anonymous donation, but still needs to raise more funds to complete construction and reach its goals, such as being fully accredited and bringing 120 new faculty physicians and scientists on staff over the next 10 years.
In addition to the lure of scholarship money, Endo says he feels the program is geared more toward students and how they flourish. “UNLV has a lot to offer with its unique curriculum,” he says. “It’s one of the most unique I saw when applying to different medical schools. I don’t feel like I’ll be a number here.”
During the first six weeks of school, students will be undergoing EMT certification. “That is unusual for medical schools, to put students in a patient environment in their first month of medical school,” Schafer says. “We are going to be driving home the idea that innovation, access and engagement with the community and patients are evolving and critical.”