Mississippi’s first DO school desperately needed in nation’s poorest state
The Asbury Administration Center is one of three buildings housing the William Carey University College Osteopathic Medicine in Hattiesburg, Miss. (Photo courtesy of WCU)
The nation’s poorest state, with a median household income of approximately $37,000 per year, Mississippi ranks 50th in both physicians per 100,000 and primary care physicians per 100,000. Seventy-nine of the state’s 82 counties are in federally designated health professional shortages areas.
Since its founding in 1955, the University of Mississippi Medical Center School of Medicine in Jackson had been the state’s only four-year medical school. Graduating no more than 100 physicians a year during most of its history, the school could not meet the medical needs of the state’s nearly 3 million people.
Recognizing the need for another medical school in Mississippi, particularly one that would produce primary care physicians, the leaders of the Mississippi Osteopathic Medical Association five years ago joined forces with a 100-year-old Baptist institution of higher learning to develop the state’s first osteopathic medical school—the William Carey University College of Osteopathic Medicine (WCUCOM) in Hattiesburg. Provisionally accredited by the AOA Commission on Osteopathic College Accreditation (COCA), the college opened in fall 2010 and is expected to become fully accredited when its inaugural class graduates in 2014.
This is the second in a series of articles on new and proposed osteopathic medical schools. The first article focused on the planned Marian University College of Osteopathic Medicine in Indianapolis
Led by administrators with experience in setting up clinical training sites, WCUCOM has forged partnerships with more than 40 hospitals and clinics across Mississippi, three in Louisiana and one in Florida. Through a traditional discipline-based curriculum steeped in osteopathic principles and practice, the school strives to instill passion for osteopathic manipulative medicine in all of its students.
Although Mississippi ranks at or near the bottom on a number of key educational measures, data from the Association of American Medical Colleges indicated that many college-educated Mississippians were leaving the state to attend medical school. WCUCOM founding dean Michael K. Murphy, DO, who led the college from 2008 through 2010, notes that the University of Mississippi’s medical school had to turn away roughly 300 well-qualified students from Mississippi annually, and hundreds more from the other Gulf states of Louisiana, Arkansas and Alabama, for lack of seats. And at the time he joined WCUCOM, some 50 osteopathic medical students from Mississippi attended DO schools in other states, Dr. Murphy remembers.
“In our feasibility study, we documented the potential for attracting quality students and faculty to WCUCOM and developed a long-range vision for the college,” says Dr. Murphy, who today serves as the director of medical education at Bluefield (W.Va.) Regional Medical Center.
Each year, WCUCOM’s applicant pool grows as the college gains recognition, points out Darrell E. Lovins, DO, MPH, the school’s dean since April 2011. “For our first class, we had more than 1,000 applicants. For our second class, we had over 1,700 applicants. And for our third class, it looks like we may have more than 2,000 applicants,” he says. The current COCA-approved class size for WCUCOM is 100 students.
Roughly half of the students in the first two classes hail from Mississippi, with the rest mostly from Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana and northwest Florida. But students from far-flung regions with an interest in practicing in Gulf Coast states are welcome to apply, Dr. Lovins says. The school targets students from the South because they are more likely to remain in the region to practice.
Among all states, Mississippi has the highest proportion of black Americans, who make up more than 36% of the population. To promote a diverse student body, WCUCOM recruits from historically black colleges and universities in the South, as well as from other colleges, Dr. Lovins says. “Ensuring diversity among students and faculty is a challenge for all DO schools,” he notes.
Joining WCUCOM in 2008 as the associate dean for clinical sciences, Dr. Lovins previously served as the executive director of A-OPTIC , a multistate alliance of osteopathic medical schools and hospitals spearheaded by the University of Pikeville-Kentucky College of Osteopathic Medicine. WCUCOM participates in this osteopathic postdoctoral training institution, which is striving to set up residencies in Mississippi and neighboring states for the school’s graduates.
Dr. Lovins has already secured clinical training sites for third- and fourth-year students at a growing list of facilities throughout Mississippi.
One of the 634 preceptors eager to take WCUCOM students on rotation is Sister Anne E. Brooks, DO, founder and chief administrator of the Tutwiler (Miss.) Clinic, located in the Mississippi Delta, the most impoverished portion of the state. Featured last month on a CBS Evening News report, Dr. Brooks is the only physician in Tutwiler and one of just three practicing in economically depressed Tallahatchie County. She will help train WCUCOM students at her clinic and at Northwest Mississippi Regional Medical Center in Clarksdale, a 166-bed hospital 15 miles to the north.
Dr. Brooks was very excited when she learned about WCUCOM’s formation in the early stages and has been involved in the initiative ever since, serving on the Dean’s Advisory Council. “There aren’t many DOs in our part of the state. So it was of great interest to me that suddenly we began blossoming and soon we will have a whole tree of potential DOs,” she says.
Dr. Brooks made the five-hour drive to Hattiesburg, which is in the southern part of Mississippi, for the school’s first white coat ceremony in 2010. “I cried because it was so exciting,” she remembers. “And it was so impressive because as the students received their coats, we learned about their previous degrees. We have a humdinger class down there.”
While the first class won’t start rotations until the next academic year, Dr. Brooks already has mentored some WCUCOM students. During winter break in the 2010-11 school year, several students shadowed her as she made her rounds in the hospital and treated patients in the clinic.