New Frontier

WesternU/COMP’s new campus plants flag for profession in Oregon

Tapping homegrown talent and broad community support, COMP-Northwest takes aim at physician shortages in the region.


Many in the profession fret that new colleges are opening faster than residencies can be created. This concern heavily influenced the development of Oregon’s first four-year osteopathic medical school, an additional location of a DO college in southern California.

Before opening its new Oregon campus last fall, the Western University of Health Sciences College of Osteopathic Medicine of the Pacific (WesternU/COMP) in Pomona, Calif., nurtured strong relationships with Oregon’s medical community. The effort has led to more than 80 internship and residency positions in eight programs in a state that had not had osteopathic graduate medical education since Eastmoreland Hospital in Portland closed in 2004.

“We felt we had a moral obligation to not open a new school without having residencies for our graduates,” says WesternU/COMP’s dean, Clinton E. Adams, DO.

Tapping homegrown talent, strong community support and the resources of its 35-year-old parent, WesternU/COMP-Northwest, as the school is known, aims to alleviate physician shortages in rural Oregon, Washington and other northwestern states. “Our war cry is ‘From the Northwest, in the Northwest, for the Northwest,’ ” Dr. Adams says. “We emphasize that we are not interlopers.”

The new campus, located in Lebanon, marks a big but natural step in WesternU/COMP’s longstanding relationship with the Pacific Northwest. Having already educated many DOs from the region over the years, WesternU/COMP launched its Northwest Track in 2004. The program sent dozens of third- and fourth-year students on rotations in Oregon and Washington.

Samaritan Health Services trained some of these students at its five hospitals in Oregon. Within a couple of years, the health system began engaging in conversations with the Osteopathic Physicians and Surgeons of Oregon (OPSO) and WesternU on the feasibility of opening a full-blown osteopathic med school in Oregon.

“It all started over a cup of coffee,” says Jeff Heatherington, then OPSO’s executive director, referring to an informal meeting with Samaritan’s president, Larry A. Mullins, DHA. “We discussed the physician shortage in the Central Willamette Valley and the need for residencies in this part of Oregon because physicians tend to practice close to where they train.” Soon discussions turned to whether WesternU/COMP might be willing to partner with Samaritan to open a DO school in Oregon.

In closing the deal, Samaritan agreed to build a 55,000-square-foot facility in Lebanon, to be leased by WesternU, and to open what will end up being more than 100 OGME slots at its flagship hospital, Good Samaritan Regional Medical Center in Corvallis, Ore.

“We all came together. The site was there, and the city was ready,” Dr. Adams says. “The people in Lebanon rolled out the red carpet instead of red tape and created an environment where you just couldn’t say no.”

The executive associate dean for WesternU/COMP-Northwest, Paula M. Crone, DO, makes note of the strong community support for the new school. “The mayor of Lebanon and his wife showed up for every interview day both last year and this year,” says Dr. Crone, a native Oregonian who graduated from WesternU/COMP in 1992. “He introduced himself and welcomed our prospective students to the school.”

An “old timber town,” as Dr. Crone describes it, Lebanon has roughly 15,000 people and is part of an agricultural county that has been struggling economically. “COMP-Northwest is helping to rejuvenate the town. The sense of pride this community has in our students has just been tremendous,” she says. “When I’m in the grocery store, people will stop and ask, ‘How are our students?’ ”

The school’s regional focus is reflected on several levels. Nearly 70% of the inaugural class comes from the states the school targets: Oregon, Washington, Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, Alaska and Hawaii.

Administratively, the school wanted someone who has strong ties to Oregon’s close-knit DO community and understands Oregon’s idiosyncratic health care system. Dr. Adams believes he found just such a person to lead the new location in Dr. Crone, who practiced family medicine in Portland and served as the director of the former Eastmoreland Hospital’s osteopathic family medicine residency program.

While Dr. Crone has recruited faculty members from all over the country, she has hired several Oregonians, including OPSO President Robyn L. Dreibelbis, DO, as the vice chairman of the family medicine department, and John T. Pham, DO, who is well-known for his premed mentoring program at OPSO, as an assistant professor of family medicine.

“I had been in solo practice for more than nine years in Portland when Dean Crone approached me about joining COMP-Northwest full time,” Dr. Pham says. “It was a very hard decision to make because I had a large population of patients. But I have always loved teaching, so I decided to take this big step. And I have enjoyed every moment.”

Blazing a trail

In addition to having more than 50 on-site faculty and staff members, the Lebanon campus uses distance-learning technology to share resources with the Pomona campus. COMP-Northwest students view real-time streamed lectures given by Pomona professors, and students in Pomona watch lectures streamed from Lebanon. Such sharing of faculty is efficient and will help control tuition costs, according to Dr. Adams.

Heatherington is among those who worry that rising tuition costs and student loan debt are driving medical students away from primary care. The Oregon HMO FamilyCare, of which he is president and CEO, has donated $2 million to WesternU/COMP-Northwest to endow a scholarship fund for Oregon students.

“Every year, we will select five second-year students for $20,000 scholarships, which will be renewed each year if the students maintain their eligibility,” says Heatherington, the son of the late J. Scott Heatherington, DO, the AOA’s 1969-70 president. The scholarships will be awarded mainly to students who plan to pursue primary care.

Student leaders at WesternU/COMP-Northwest praise the friendliness of the faculty and note the rewards of being pioneers at a new school. “I applied to many different schools. When I interviewed at COMP-Northwest, it was the faculty that sold it for me,” says Andrea K. Pippin, OMS II, the 2011-12 class president. “Once I got my acceptance letter, I withdrew my other applications.”

Pippin, an Oregon native, describes the campus as “very family friendly.” A large proportion of the students are married. Altogether, the 105 students in the first class have 55 children, she notes.

When Chase K. Nelson, OMS II, arrived on campus for his interview in October 2010, the school had not yet been built. The interviews took place at the small community hospital across the street. “I was the first person to arrive on interview day, and I must have had a confused look on my face,” recalls Nelson, Pippin’s successor as class president. “Dean Crone came over to me and made me feel at ease. She was the nicest person in the world. And she told me that because my class would be the first class of students, we would have a big say in shaping the culture of the school. This has turned out to be true.”

Dr. Pham is also enjoying the new frontier: “It’s exciting to be part of the first medical school to open in Oregon in more than 100 years.”

One comment

  1. James E.Whte, DO, RPh

    Hopeully you will consider adding Oral Osteopathy to your curriculum. Oral Osteopathy uses direct craniofacial manipulation supported by a customized acrylic oral appliance for each patient. It uses a full scientific method based on a series of operational definitions inclding the induction of 12 non-traumatic and specific somatic dysfunctions, two NIH quality clinical quantifying systems for SDs and prevention of SDs. Oral Osteopathy is designed to be used in a solo physician’s office or college. Quantified results can be digitized. J.White,DO

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