Whitney Weixelman, a third-year medical student at the University of Kansas School of Medicine-Wichita, says she’s happy she chose to go to school in Wichita, even though she was a bit nervous at first.
Weixelman is one of “the eight” – the first group of students who will complete all four years of medical school in Wichita.
By being at the Wichita campus for all four years, Weixelman was able to experience working with patients from the beginning.
Traditionally, medical students don’t have much interaction with patients until the third and fourth years.
“It reminds you that working with patients is what you love about medicine ... why you were going to medical school in the first place,” she said. “The first two years can bog you down with book work, and it was refreshing to spend the afternoon with patients.
“The more time you spend with patients and seeing physician and patient interactions, the better off you’re going to be as a physician.”
Medical school administrators and faculty have big plans for the Wichita campus, including expanding the number of students who can attend all four years here.
The biggest hurdle will be financial, said Garold Minns, dean of the Wichita school.
After opening in 1971 to provide clinical training for third- and fourth-year medical students, the program expanded in 2011 to a full four-year campus to help with the physician shortage.
After the first year with “the eight,” the school now takes 28 students as freshmen who spend all four years in Wichita. It also takes in about 50 students each year who have completed the first half of their medical training in Kansas City.
The goal is to have all 80 students start as freshmen in Wichita and complete all four years together.
“We believe strongly that students need to have some patient exposure throughout the four years and it would be nice if that patient exposure could be longitudinal so you have the same patients over their entire four years of medical school,” Minns said.
“That’s really not possible when they have half of their training in one city and half in another.”
Donna Sweet, a professor and practitioner of internal medicine at the KU School of Medicine-Wichita who also is the president of the Medical Society of Sedgwick County, agrees.
The traditional Kansas City model, she said, is two years of study, “and then you hit the wards and you’re supposed to be a doctor.”
The Wichita students “have been seeing patients all along, and the degree of maturity and self-startedness that I’m seeing in these third-years is amazing. It’s a wonderful program. I’m obviously biased. But we need to convince the Legislature of how important it is to keep it here so we don’t lose that.
“We’ve got to keep it going and growing.”
Last year, KU chancellor Bernadette Gray-Little made a request for an additional $4.5 million in state funding to double the class size of the Wichita campus and to fund physician faculty.
The school did not receive the funding and is unsure of future requests, according to a spokeswoman. Earlier in 2013, state lawmakers cut about $4 million from KU’s budget.
Minns said the plan to expand fully with more space and faculty is at least five years away. The school has 72 full-time faculty, 74 part-time faculty and more than 900 volunteer faculty.
At this point, Minns said, the school may have to look for alternative sources for the expansion, including philanthropy.
“Obviously if the state saw that within their means and found that a priority, they could certainly help out,” Minns said. “If they don’t, we will be seeking other ways of financing a building. ... We understand that the state finances are very tight right now. One would hope in the next five years we would see that improve.”
The Wichita economy has benefited tremendously from having a school here, Minns said.
In March 2010, the WSU Center for Economic Development and Business Research reported that the KU School of Medicine-Wichita makes a $47 million contribution to the Wichita economy.
The school also is helping by producing more primary care physicians, like Weixelman. There is a physician shortage in the U.S., particularly in the area of primary care and family medicine, Minns said.
“For various reasons, this country has not been turning out the number of primary care physicians we need,” Minns said. “However, I think if you look at the number coming out of Wichita, it’s near the top in comparison with other medical schools. We hope to even improve upon that.”
In a study released last year by George Washington University and the Robert Graham Center for Policy Studies in Family Medicine and Primary Care, the Wichita campus ranked sixth in the country for producing primary care doctors by percentage of students.
The medical school also can help attract young doctors to stay and work in the Wichita community, Weixelman said.
“Having students here for four years, they get to see all that Wichita has to offer,” she said. “It’s a great place to live and raise a family.”
The school also has a significant percentage of students who go on to practice in rural areas, Minns said.
“If you look at our track record, we have a very good rate of getting our primary care physicians and our specialties out into those rural areas,” Minns said.
Across all specialties, about 49 percent of the medical students are likely to stay in Kansas and about 65 percent of residency grads are likely to stay, according to a KU spokeswoman.