For-profit medical schools address doctor shortage in rural regions

U.S. News and World Report has rated Rocky Vista University as the 10th least-expensive private medical school in the nation. | File photo

The U.S. is experiencing growth in the number of new for-profit medical schools across the country, increasing the nation’s ability to provide qualified family doctors to rural areas and beyond.

Due to aging baby boomers and the expansion of health insurance coverage under the Affordable Care Act, Idaho, like other rural states, has a need for more general practitioners.

According to an article in the New England Journal of Medicine, between 2002 and 2014, 31 medical schools opened across the country – most of which were nonprofit or public.

Rocky Vista University College of Osteopathic Medicine (RVUCOM) in Parker, Colorado, pioneered the advent of for-profit medical schools in the U.S., and proved that for-profit schools and medical education can be a recipe for success, a School Education Review paper profiling the school concluded.

“Rocky Vista University (RVU) became the only for-profit osteopathic medical school in the nation in 2008,” the paper stated. “Seven years later, it has shown unequivocally that for-profit schools and physician training can mix.”

Since then, other for-profit medical schools have popped up, including California Northstate University School of Medicine and the Burrell College of Osteopathic Medicine in New Mexico.

Similar to public and nonprofit schools, new for-profit medical schools must make sure their graduates get placed in a residency or equivalent program. Failure to ensure that at least 98 percent of an osteopathic school’s graduates get residency positions can result in the school losing its accreditation.

For accountability, residency placement numbers must be made public by medical schools, which helps prospective medical students assess the quality of education the school provides.

“Accreditation ensures students that the school meets standards. But Rocky Vista University also requires prospective students to meet standards, making it very competitive for students to get into the medical college,” the paper stated.

But critics are skeptical about whether the new schools can adequately train tomorrow’s doctors. Proponents, however, contend that any belief that for-profit medical training is inadequate stems from fear, not fact.

In its first four years of graduating classes, 100 percent of RVU’s Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine students placed in residency programs ranging from three to eight years depending on the student’s medical specialty.

“Considering that it is a competitive process — all graduating students from all medical schools in the country interview and register in the match process and then are selected by hospitals and residency programs nationwide — that is impressive,” the paper said.

In addition, after scoring in the high 90s in recent years, RVU ranked No. 1 in the nation in 2015 on the board licensure exam pass rate for COMLEX 1, “a cognitive examination that assesses the osteopathic medical knowledge and clinical skills considered essential for osteopathic generalist physicians to practice medicine without supervision.”

Medical for-profit schools have had their share of flops. In 2015, Dade Medical College in Florida shut down amid mounting financial issues. The school’s 2,000 health care students were caught off guard when they arrived on campus to find doors locked. According to the Miami Herald, the school received more than $100 million in taxpayer-funded Pell grants and student loans since opening in 1999.

RVU, on the other hand, has excelled and managed to keep tuition costs reasonably low.

“For the last two years, U.S. News and World Report has rated Rocky Vista University as the 10th least-expensive private medical school in the nation,” the paper said. 

Plans exist to convert Rocky Vista University into a comprehensive health sciences school.