Consider this: a child born today in East Texas is more likely to live in poverty, less likely to graduate college and more likely to die an early death than children from other regions of the state. When faced with a medical or mental health need, residents are less likely to find a professional to provide care due to regional primary care and mental health provider shortages– shortages seven to eight times worse than the state and national benchmarks. Additionally, they are 43% more likely to commit suicide than residents from other regions of Texas.
These realities are the present, but they do not have to be the future. The University of Texas System’s dedication to addressing these disparities are evident. In the past five months, UT System has proven their commitment to East Texas. With multiple investments in the regional UT institutions—The University of Texas Health Science Center at Tyler and The University of Texas at Tyler—UT System’s devotion to the advancement of the region is evident and unparalleled by any other higher education system in the state.
On February 27th, The University of Texas System board of regents unanimously approved a proposal to establish a medical school in Tyler. The school will be the first of its kind in East Texas, providing a pathway for students to receive a comprehensive medical education, as well as extending access to patient care, especially for individuals living in rural areas of the region. “A medical school in Tyler is perfectly aligned with the Board of Regents’ commitment that Texans have access to quality education and healthcare, regardless where they reside,” Board Chairman Kevin P. Eltife said. “This important decision by the board is a reflection, to a great extent, of the efforts of many community, business and healthcare leaders and elected officials who have been deeply invested in East Texas and worked tirelessly for years to bring a UT medical school to Tyler.”
With the regents’ green light, UT System and UT Health Science Center at Tyler are now authorized to work with the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, the Texas Legislature and other licensing and accrediting agencies to bring the school to fruition. The board’s approval of the medical school—which would be the seventh in the UT System—marked yet another significant milestone among a cascade of recent major events to boost the impact of higher education and healthcare in East Texas.
On February 6th, leaders from UT System, UT Health Science Center and UT Tyler joined together at Plaza Tower in downtown Tyler to announce a plan to elevate the region’s higher education and healthcare opportunities, declaring their intention to establish a medical school in Tyler. They optimistically explained their case to a group of regional business, civic, educational and medical leaders, as well as elected officials at a morning news conference. This announcement of intention garnered tremendous support from those in attendance.
Less than a week following UT System’s announcement of its intention to launch the medical school in East Texas, the endeavor continued to gain tremendous momentum. On February 12th, The University of Texas Health Science Center at Tyler received a historic gift commitment as the first response to their call for private and public support necessary to fund the new school. Announced at Willow Brook Country Club in Tyler, the East Texas Medical Center Foundation pledged an investment of $80 million to help fund the university’s new educational venture—aimed at significantly transforming health education, care and outcomes in a rapidly growing region of the state. The foundation’s monumental gift represents the largest single contribution ever made to establish a medical school in Texas, as well as the largest gift made to an institution or organization in East Texas. The secured gift will assist to partially address planning and operational costs associated with the establishment of the medical school. Vice Chairman Janiece Longoria, who also chairs the board’s Health Affairs Committee, noted that the medical school would play a critical role in allowing aspiring physicians from East Texas to not only train in the area, but to live and practice, too.
The retention of these students as physicians is vital to addressing the region’s health outcome disparities. With the opportunity to obtain a baccalaureate and medical degree and then transition into one of UT Health Science Center’s cadre of flagship residency programs, East Texas students pursuing a career in medicine can do so in one locale, right in their hometown. This comprehensive educational pathway serves as a key component that translates directly to their retention. Statistically proven, physicians tend to stay within a close radius of where they complete their education and training. Therefore, UT System is optimistic that establishing this missing link will help address the existing physician shortage. Moreover, with UT Health East Texas’ expansive network of care sprawling across the region, the journey from student to resident to physician can all be accomplished in East Texas.
“It’s a watershed time for East Texas,” UT System Chancellor James B. Milliken noted. “UT institutions in Tyler, which have played a critical role in the region’s education, health and economic infrastructure for decades, are now on the cusp of yet another great leap forward.” As the result of UT Health Science Center’s partnership with Ardent Health Services and the East Texas Medical Center Regional Healthcare System creating UT Health East Texas in 2018, UT Health Science Center at Tyler is adding 200 new residency slots on top of their existing offerings. This increase will expand the pipeline of physicians who complete their training in East Texas hospitals, aimed for them to remain in the region to practice medicine.
“The sustained investment in our region, particularly over the last several years, has been extraordinary,” said Kirk A. Calhoun, MD, FACP, president of UT Health Science Center at Tyler and board chairman of UT Health East Texas. “We are profoundly grateful to the board of regents and UT System for recognizing both the need and the potential in East Texas and for making it possible for a long-time vision to become a reality.” Calhoun continued his expression of gratitude, “The East Texas Medical Center Foundation’s commitment to advancing medicine in East Texas marks an unprecedented financial commitment and vote of confidence in our university, and for that, we are eternally grateful,” Calhoun said. “We pledge to be excellent stewards of this gift as we serve the community. This contribution supporting the operations of the proposed medical school will accelerate East Texas’ ascendancy as a destination of choice for medical school students, physicians and other health professionals to train and live; for families to remain and industries to locate; and to significantly improve patient outcomes.”
In addition to the recent substantial investment in November 2019, the board of regents allocated $95 million in Permanent University Fund (PUF) proceeds for UT Tyler and UT Health Science Center at Tyler, the single largest PUF appropriation awarded to the city at one time, to construct two facilities to accelerate high-quality health education and healthcare in the region. Then, in December, regents authorized the integration of talent and assets at UT Tyler and UT Health Science Center at Tyler to create a unified institution to enhance education, research and clinical delivery for the region. An operational team composed of leadership from both Tyler institutions, UT System and a community advisory board, is working to move that plan forward.
The University of Texas System’s unwavering commitment to moving East Texas forward will serve as an effort not soon forgotten. Their investment in the region will leave a lasting legacy for generations to come, functioning as a catapult to significantly advance the region in a multitude of ways. As they continue to advance education, advance research and advance healthcare, they simultaneously improve the lives of all East Texans and beyond.
“The East Texas Medical Center Foundation’s commitment to advancing medicine in East Texas marks an unprecedented financial commitment and vote of confidence in our university, and for that, we are eternally grateful.”