Last week I had the opportunity to speak with Erik Wallace, associate dean of the CU School of Medicine’s first branch campus, which will be welcome its inaugural class to Lane Center at UCCS in April. During our relatively brief conversation, Wallace discussed the medical education program’s potential impact on Colorado Springs, pertaining to both regional health care and the economy.

Much of our conversation can be found in an article in the Sept. 4 edition of the Business Journal, but Wallace had so many good things to share, the print edition couldn’t contain it all.

For instance, in March, the Business Journal reported El Paso County has a primary care physician shortage, according to a 2014 study by the Colorado Health Institute entitled “Colorado’s Primary Care Workforce: A Study of Regional Disparities.”

The report found El Paso County has no more than one primary care physician for every 2,501 residents, earning it a “low capacity” rating, the study’s second-lowest designation.

Wallace discussed how many new physicians practice in proximity to where they trained, often times in the practice of the person who trained them. The lack of medical education in the region may be a huge contributing factor to its shortage.

“We don’t produce any new clinicians who can provide clinical services to the citizens of this community,” Wallace said. “I believe we’re one of the largest, if not the largest community in this country, that doesn’t have its own medical training program. For those reasons, physician numbers are way below where they need to be.

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“In a study that came out last year,” he added, “El Paso County had a shortage of 120 full-time equivalent primary care physicians. That’s a huge number, and when we’re producing zero, it’s harder to close that gap.”

Wallace said retention efforts won’t be measurable for some time because, from today, it will be a minimum of six years before students passing through Colorado Springs become doctors.

“It’s all the more important to pair and train those students with the best teachers in the community — to work with students and help with those recruiting efforts,” he said.

But, like anything else, the program needs money to operate.

“It’s been challenging raising funds so far because we don’t have a product yet,” Wallace said. “We can talk about the vision of what we’re trying to do, but without students here, the community has not yet seen the benefits of having them here.”

Wallace said there’s a scholarship fund that received an initial, anonymous donation meant to stimulate others in community to match those funds.

The donation was for $100,000 per year for three to five years “depending on how successful the program is,” Wallace said.

He said the donation tells the student community that “southern Colorado supports you and wants you down here.”

Wallace also discussed how training methods in Colorado Springs will be more patient-centered by design, than traditional third-year curriculum.

For instance, Wallace said many who attend medical school come from privileged backgrounds. As such, there is a growing lack of empathy for patients.

“We want to be sure our future doctors care about every patient and we want to be sure they ask the right questions,” he said. “It’s not that the doctor can fix everything. He can’t provide the resources to pay the electric bill and he can’t provide a car for transportation, but he can understand those are struggles people face, and it may be the reason why the patient missed an appointment or didn’t take their medication or why they didn’t get the test you recommended.

“We want to teach doctors to care and ask the right questions and be part of a health care delivery system with access to resources to help patients in those areas — whether social worker or case manager, we want them to have knowledge of the local community,” he said. That’s what’s been missing from medical education for a while. We didn’t learn that in any of my training.”

Wallace said “every practice in town is trying to recruit new doctors — both for now and in the future. There’s tremendous cost associated with that. If we can bring in students and give them a great experience, maybe they’ll want to go into that specialty. Maybe they’ll want to come back here and practice in that location. Then you have a doctor lined up years down the road. There’s a huge potential if [physicians] embrace [medical education] and do it well.”