Microsoft founder Bill Gates at the Northern Arizona University graduation ceremony on May 13, 2023, in Flagstaff. Photo courtesy Northern Arizona University
Northern Arizona University is launching its own medical school, University President José Luis Cruz Rivera announced during an Arizona Board of Regents meeting Friday.
“Our state faces a critical need for more providers in primary care, nursing, health professions, and behavioral health fields, especially in rural, Indigenous, and underserved communities,” Cruz Rivera said in a statement.
The plans for the College of Medicine, which will be known as NAU Health, come 60 years after NAU began planning for its first health care program, for an associate degree in nursing, Cruz Rivera told the regents on Friday.
Through NAU Health, the university plans to educate primary care providers who reflect the people who live in Arizona and who will hopefully plan to stay in the state to help quell the dearth of providers in rural and indigenous communities. The university plans to have the school up and running within 3 to 5 years.
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The state needed at least 650 new primary care doctors to be able to fully serve its population as of 2022, according to experts from University of Arizona, with rural and tribal communities more harshly impacted by the shortage.
NAU promises to design accelerated degrees for medical doctors with opportunities for in-state students to graduate with minimal debt, Cruz Rivera said.
“This includes plans for a tuition coverage program similar to the Arizona Teachers Academy, where graduates who stay to practice in Arizona after graduation will have their educational costs fully covered, as well as a curriculum that foregrounds cultural competency and integrates significant behavioral health perspectives to improve outcomes for patients and their communities,” Cruz Rivera wrote in the statement.
The university president praised the efforts of NAU’s team for record fundraising in fiscal year 2022, bringing in $21.5 million, and blowing that record out of the water by raising another $53 million in 2023.
However, Cruz Rivera added that the university needs “significant new investments from the state.”
“With state support, dividends from NAU would be accelerated and multiplied,” he told the regents.
In addition to the creation of the College of Medicine, the university plans to expand its work in nursing and other health care professions, and is set to create a free-standing College of Nursing to make that happen. The university has a goal of doubling the number of degrees it awards in nursing and health care by 2030.
Dr. Julie Baldwin, a nationally recognized expert in health equity who is currently the executive director of the Center for Health Equity Research at NAU, is set to lead the new College of Medicine.
Baldwin will start in that role at the beginning of 2024, with the title of NARBHA Institute Vice President for NAU Health.
The NARBHA Institute, formerly the Northern Arizona Regional Behavioral Health Authority, is a nonprofit organization based in Flagstaff with a mission to “improve integrated wellness” in northern Arizona. It has promised a $400,000 multi-year donation toward the creation of the new NAU Health.
“Thank you for giving us something which meets the state’s needs but is also beautifully in alignment with the DNA of NAU’s service mission,” ABOR Chairman Fred DuVal said during the meeting. “(This is) really thoughtfully done, relative to our rural communities, relative to our need for general practitioners and obviously the severe need we have on our tribal communities.”
ABOR Treasurer Lyndel Manson, who lives in Flagstaff, said after the announcement that she was both excited for the future of NAU and the future of Northern Arizona.
Also during the meeting, the regents voted unanimously to amend their budget request from the state of Arizona for the upcoming year to reflect additional needs related to this expansion. The regents agreed to increase their ask for NAU by $40 million.
“We hope that the state is a full partner in getting this off the ground,” DuVal said. While the university will continue to foster other partnerships, he said “it can’t be done without state support.”
State promises $11 million to AZ Healthy Tomorrow Initiative
Also during the Arizona Board of Regents meeting, Gov. Katie Hobbs announced an $11 million investment from the state in the AZ Healthy Tomorrow Initiative, an effort by all three state universities announced earlier this year that is set to “prioritize programs that will attract and retain qualified healthcare workers, from physicians and nurses to other allied health professions.”
Through the initiative, Arizona State University plans to create a new medical school with a focus on engineering and The University of Arizona plans to double the size of its medical schools in Phoenix and Tucson, in addition to NAU’s creation of its own college of medicine.
“As Arizona continues to grow and attract businesses and families, it’s critical that we have qualified healthcare professionals to keep our state safe and healthy,” Hobbs said in a statement. “I am extremely encouraged by the efforts of our state universities, and am confident that these new programs will help close the gap so many Arizonans are feeling when it comes to accessing quality healthcare services. We are stronger when every single Arizonan can get the care they need, and I am committed to getting that done.”
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