Politics & Government

Private school planned for downtown Wichita troubles KU Medical School leader

Editor’s note: A previous version of this story said the Kansas Board of Regents moved a vote to approve the Kansas Health Science Center to its June meeting, based on board discussion Wednesday. A discussion of the school was moved to the June meeting, but the board approved it to operate in Kansas on Thursday.

A private medical school planned for Wichita, and its potential to bring money downtown, could help boost economic development, city leaders say.

But it could also cause problems for one of the best public medical schools in the country and overburden the state’s health care system, according to the dean of the University of Kansas Medical School’s Wichita campus.

KU’s School of Medicine has long been recognized as one of the top medical schools in the country. Almost half of the state’s physicians have trained there, and its graduates practice in 91 of the state’s 105 counties, according to the school’s data. Its medical doctor program had 840 students enrolled this year across three campuses, with about 200 in Wichita.

The new private medical school, the Kansas Health Science Center, a nonprofit school of osteopathic medicine the city expects to move into the former Finney State Office Building downtown, hasn’t been accredited yet. The Kansas Board of Regents approved the school to operate in Kansas and will discuss it at its June meeting.

The private school is negotiating a development agreement with the city that would provide the school with tax subsidies, although the exact amount is still being negotiated. It could open by August 2022, according to the memorandum of understanding with the city.

Sudha Tokala, the developer who plans to open the school along with student apartments, a culinary arts school and a Marriott hotel, declined to comment.

Garold Minns, dean of KU Med’s Wichita campus, said Kansas may not have enough medical facilities to offer the hands-on clinical traning student physicians need.

Adding it to the state’s medical school ecosystem could overburden its existing capacity to train medical students, Minns said.

“With a finite number of clinical training sites available in Kansas, an additional school in the state could significantly increase the need for additional clinical training sites, possibly overwhelming the capacity of our valuable volunteer faculty,” Minns said.

That means the state would need more hospitals, clinics and physicians’ offices to handle the increase in students doing rotations. But rural hospitals across the state are closing. Fort Scott, Oswego, Horton, Great Bend and Independence have all lost hospitals in the past few years.

It would also mean doctors would have to volunteer to take on more students on rotations, when third- and fourth-year medical students are placed under the supervision of practicing physicians.

Wichita city officials haven’t said whether they’re considering those potential issues while working on an agreement with the Kansas Health Science Center.

Tokala’s downtown projects would include $75 million in building improvements and create 324 net new jobs with a minimum salary of $55,000 within five years of completion, a memorandum of understanding approved Tuesday by the City Council says.

“The City cannot speculate how the presence of a new medical training facility might impact rotations in and out of clinical training,” City spokesperson Elyse Mohler said in an email.

Friday, Mohler referred questions about the school to a spokesperson for Tokala’s Douglas Market Development, who could not be reached.

Minns said the Kansas Science Health Center could cause issues across the state.

“Depending on where they seek additional clinical training sites, it could impact not only the KU School of Medicine’s Wichita campus, but our campuses in Kansas City and Salina as well,” he said.

What he’s saying isn’t new. For years, University of Kansas Medical School officials have said that adding another medical school to the state is a bad idea.

But now it’s coming to Wichita, according to a nonbinding agreement the City Council approved Tuesday and hopes to finalize in the next 120 days.

Why?

Near the end of his term, former Gov. Sam Brownback suggested the idea of opening an osteopathic school of medicine somewhere in the state to increase the number of primary care physicians in rural areas. Then he appointed a task force to study the feasibility of adding the school and where it should go.

A consultant’s study considered by the task force identified Wichita, Topeka and Manhattan as sites that would support a new school, the Kansas City Star reported in 2017.

Robert Moser, a KU Medical Center professor and former Kansas Secretary of Health and Environment, was on the task force that recommended adding another medical school. He said he was frustrated by the decision, which seemed like “a predetermined solution,” he told the Kansas City Star at the time.

Enter Tokala, a pharmacist-turned-developer who bought five abandoned buildings in downtown Wichita at about the same time the task force made its recommendation. She heard about the study and called the consultant, she told the Eagle last June.

“The need in rural Kansas is great,” she said at the time.

Now, she’s planning the Kansas Health Science Center, set to open by August 1, 2022 in the former Finney State Office Building, a joined building at 130 S. Market and 230 E. William.

Brownback’s solution to the growing concern about health care in rural areas was to graduate more doctors with training in primary care, a focus of osteopathic schools.

Doctors of Osteopathy, or DOs, train at osteopathic medical schools, which take a mind-body-spirit approach to medical diagnosis and treatment. Most DO schools are private and enroll between 50 students and 300 students a year, according to the American Association of Colleges of Osteopathic Medicine’s list of programs.

Graduates of both types of schools become licensed physicians, but proponents of osteopathic schools say they do a better job of graduating primary care physicians.

KU medical school is already one of the best schools in the country at doing that, Minns said. The school ranks in the top 5% of Association of American Medical Colleges for schools that educate primary care physicians.

Minns said the decision to add a medical school in the state should be based on studies that say how many graduates the state actually needs.

“If additional physicians are needed, I believe we should build on KU’s success and expand the KU School of Medicine in Wichita.”

How would the school run?

It’s unclear at this point how the Kansas Health Science Center would be run.

The Kansas Board of Regents said it established an outside review team of four osteopathic physicians practicing in Kansas to review the school’s curriculum requirements. The four physicians said the curriculum sufficiently prepares graduates in core competencies and professionalism, according to a Board of Regents issue paper.

The Board of Regents has not yet made available the supporting documents and the names of physicians who were involved in the evaluation.

On Wednesday, the Kansas Board of Regents approved the Kansas Health Science Center to operate in Kansas, but it must submit yearly reports to the board. The board moved discussion about the Kansas Health Science Center to its June meeting. It was initially on the consent agenda, which is for routine business that doesn’t require discussion.

Any private colleges opening in Kansas must get approval from the board of regents.

The accreditation process for institutes of higher learning take years to complete and has a robust list of requirements, making the Kansas Health Center’s plan to open by 2022 an ambitious one.

It’s unclear if the school has reached the first step of accreditation. A Board of Regents issue paper on the school says it’s in the “applicant status” phase, but a spokesperson with the accrediting agency said it has no information about the proposed school in Wichita.

The commission that makes accreditation decisions announces its decisions 30 days after its meetings, and no such announcements have been made about the Kansas Health Science Center.

“COCA (Commission on Osteopathic College Accreditation) announcements would include applicant status, if it were granted to a prospective school,” said Sheridan Chaney, vice president for communication of the American Osteopathic Association.

“All other information is held in strict confidence to protect the privacy of candidates, applicants, etc.,” Chaney continued.

“I literally have no information, public or otherwise, about this proposed school,” Chaney said.

The Kansas Health Science Center filed articles of incorporation with the Kansas Secretary of State as a nonprofit last April. Tokala is listed as the president and sole member of the organization in its annual report from December.

To meet its 2022 opening, the school would have to submit an applicant status request form to the accrediting agency by August. By next February, it would need to hire a dean and have other senior staff in place. According to accreditation requirements, the school would have to submit a pre-accreditation self-study by February 2021.

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Chance Swaim won the Betty Gage Holland Award in 2018 for distinguished service to honor and protect the integrity of public dialogue on America’s college campuses. He has been a news reporter for The Wichita Eagle since 2018. You can contact him at 316-269-6752 and cswaim@wichitaeagle.com.
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