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California’s Newest Medical School Opens At UC Riverside

Above: The dean of UC Riverside's new medical school, G. Richard Olds, said students need to learn the importance of wellness, and disease prevention.

Classes began this week at California’s newest medical school. UC Riverside is the first publicly funded medical school to open in the state in more than 40 years. The school’s inaugural class is made up of 50 students.

Aired 8/15/13 on KPBS News.

UC Riverside's new medical school has a unique mission: to produce doctors who want to serve in California's Inland Empire.

Last Friday evening, an audience gave the medical students a warm reception as they filed into UC Riverside’s main gymnasium. After introductory remarks, the crowd fell silent as the young men and women lined up at the foot of the stage.

“I would like to welcome our first student across the stage: Omar Aldas," the speaker announced.

One by one, students came up and were awarded their physician’s white coat.

Some were visibly nervous as they walked onto the stage. Michelle Tom, 23, had an enormous smile on her face. She was still smiling when the ceremony was over.

Michelle Tom, 23, a graduate of UCLA, said she's wanted to be a doctor her entire life.

“Oh, this is just like, unreal, ‘cause my whole life, it’s like I wanted to be a doctor,” Tom said. “And finally, finally, I get to put this white coat on, like I’ve always been dreaming to put on.”

Standing off to the side, Jose Medina was smiling, too. Medina represents Riverside in the California Assembly. He wrote the bill that secures $15 million in annual state funding for the new medical school. It got unanimous support in Sacramento.

Medina said California’s Inland Empire has an acute shortage of doctors.

“And I think that we’re gonna see doctors produced that will stay in the community, who know this community, who understand the culture of the area, and will fill a need that has been very obvious to many people,” Medina said.

UC Riverside officials say that’s their goal: to attract students who want to serve the region in the areas of greatest medical need. Those include primary care, gynecology and psychiatry.

The school’s dean, G. Richard Olds, explained the school also wants to focus on matters that get short end of the stick in other programs — wellness and prevention.

“Doesn’t mean that we’re not teaching ‘em how to save your life when you’re desperately ill, but we’re adding to the curriculum what I think doctors in the future are going to have to be much better at, which is keeping you healthy,” Olds said.

The message was hammered home to students during their very first lecture this week.

“Prevention is a must,” one of the lecturers told the students. “We simply cannot afford current rates of morbidity and mortality. We can’t. And so our issue is, how do we, as physicians, how do we motivate people? Because they have to; we’ve got to get people to live healthier lifestyles.”

Olds said to be sure, aspiring doctors need to master the science of modern medicine, but he argued there’s a lot more to being a doctor than academic achievement.

50 students make up the inaugural class at UC Riverside's new med school.

“I’ve never met a patient who thought the most important quality of their doctor, is they got a A-plus in organic chemistry,” Olds said. “Patients want doctors who will listen, patients want doctors that care about what’s wrong with them, and admit when they don’t know things, and work together to bring them better health.”

That struck a chord with medical student Isaiah Roggow. The UC Davis graduate had his pick of medical schools. Roggow chose UC Riverside because of the special feeling he got from the faculty.

“There’s a family aspect that really resonated with me that I didn’t get at other medical schools,” Roggow explained. “It felt like that when I came in here, there was like this group of aunts and uncles that were here, that really wanted to see me succeed.”

Dr. Arnold Tabuenca chairs the department of surgery at the new school. He’s looking forward to teaching the next generation of doctors.

“When you experience and see somebody that really has a complete lack of knowledge, and then they go through medical school and they go through training, to the point that you say, well, you could be my physician, it’s completely fulfilling,” the surgeon said.

In the hopes of generating more doctors for the region, UC Riverside officials plan to expand enrollment in the near future.

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