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Regional Academic Health Center's first class selected

The first class of medical students to be trained in one of the state's most medically underserved regions has been selected at The University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio (UTHSCSA). This summer, the students will move to the Lower Rio Grande Valley, where they will spend their final years of medical school at the Medical Education Division of the Regional Academic Health Center (RAHC).

A geographically remote campus of the Health Science Center for third- and fourth-year medical students, the RAHC's Medical Education Division in Harlingen is one of three RAHC components established by the Texas Legislature. The Medical Research Division, to be located in Edinburg, is under the direction of UTHSCSA, while the Public Health Division in Brownsville will be operated by the UT Health Science Center at Houston School of Public Health.

The Medical Education Division is the first component to become operational, with its first class of 24 third-year students beginning their training in the region on July 1. Within a year, another class will follow them, giving the RAHC its full complement of 48 students. It is hoped that many of the students who train in the Rio Grande Valley will decide to practice there.

"These outstanding medical students who are part of our Regional Academic Health Center will be the vanguard of tomorrow's expanded health coverage for this entire region," said UTHSCSA President Francisco G. Cigarroa, M.D. "They are building a brighter, healthier future for us all, and I am immensely proud of them. I am also grateful to the local physicians who play a critical role in the education and training of these future doctors. This is partnership at its best, and we all will be the beneficiaries of this exciting new era."

Steven A. Wartman, M.D., Ph.D., dean of the School of Medicine and executive vice president for academic and health affairs at UTHSCSA, spoke of the historical significance of the students' selection. "It is not often that one can say, 'I was the first.' Yet this extraordinary opportunity awaits our first class of students at the Regional Academic Health Center," he said. "They are pioneers who, along with the faculty, staff, partners and people of the Lower Rio Grande Valley, will usher in a new phase of development and dynamic growth for this important region. I am confident that we are not only 'making physicians' but making history as well."

The RAHC's Regional Dean, Leonel Vela, M.D., echoed Dr. Wartman's enthusiasm as he spoke on the quality of education the RAHC promises its students. "This is the moment in history that so many people have worked toward, committing valuable time and resources to bring it about. Now at last this moment has arrived, and we have total confidence that the students' experience at the RAHC is going to meet or exceed their expectations."

That experience will include clinical training at Harlingen's Valley Baptist Medical Center, the main teaching hospital for the RAHC. Ambulatory care experiences will be based at Su Clinica Familiar, a federally qualified community-migrant health center with clinics in Harlingen and other Valley communities, and at the offices of numerous private physicians throughout the region.

The students' first year with the RAHC will consist of a series of clerkships, or clinical rotations in the primary care specialties of internal medicine, pediatrics, family and community medicine, obstetrics/gynecology, surgery, and psychiatry. Interwoven with the disciplines of pediatrics, internal medicine, and family and community medicine will be a longitudinal primary care experience. A half-day per week for six months, the students will participate in field experiences that take advantage of the unique learning opportunities the Rio Grande Valley has to offer. Visiting community health centers and nearby colonias, or unincorporated areas of the Valley, they will study issues in public health, the tie between culture and health, and environmental health and its relation to human disease.

Dr. Vela said these topics are not typically included in a medical student's education, but they are important for our future physicians. "The whole idea is for the students to understand and appreciate that their patients are, in a sense, a product of their environment," he said. "To be effective physicians, they need to consider the broad environmental issues that affect their patients."

To prepare for this first group of RAHC students, the Health Science Center and local physicians have been working together to develop and implement all the necessary clerkships. To date, more than 150 regional physicians have signed on as clinical faculty, and all the primary care clerkships are operational. Some have been accepting UTHSCSA students on clinical rotations for more than two years.

Positive reports from those students have many members of the RAHC's first official class excited about the opportunity to train with enthusiastic faculty who offer personal attention.

Korina Lopez, a member of the first class, said she is excited about training at the RAHC because of its unique learning opportunities. "I hope to brush up on my medical Spanish. I hope to learn more about the Hispanic culture, especially as it relates to medicine, and I want to learn more about border health."

She said she has long wanted to practice medicine in a medically underserved community. "I think the RAHC is the perfect place to begin to work with the population that I hope to work for someday."

Contact: Julie Collins, (210) 567-7813, or Will Sansom, (210) 567-2570