Planned Clovis medical school deserves Valley’s support

The latest challenge embraced by the Assemi family is daunting. How long have Fresno-area leaders talked about getting a medical school built in the heart of the San Joaquin Valley?

Four decades, at least. And until Tuesday, prospects remained stuck at zero in the near term for a local medical school.

There’s no disputing the need. Statewide, there are 64 primary care doctors per 100,000 people, but in the Valley, there are 47. The shortfall is even bigger when the ratio recommended by medical experts is utilized. They call for 60 to 80 primary care physicians per 100,000.

What’s more, records kept by University of California, San Francisco-Fresno, which has been training resident physicians for more than 40 years, show that doctors are more likely to practice in the regions where they are trained.

The correlation is clear: A local medical school will do more to provide Valley residents, particularly the poor, with better health care than trying to lure more doctors here with sales pitches about affordable living and the convenient location – or even swallowing hard and offering sky-high salaries.

Enter Farid and Darius Assemi – Iranian immigrants, farmers, investors, philanthropists and best known, perhaps, for their residential construction business, Granville Homes.

Not content to wait for dreams of a medical school at UC Merced, which was approved in concept by UC regents in 2008 but appears many years away, or at Fresno State, a much bigger long shot, the Assemis announced plans for a private, for-profit college of osteopathic medicine at California Health Sciences University in Clovis on Tuesday.

The words “private” and “for-profit” should not signal alarms, Farid Assemi told The Bee editorial board. This is the fastest, least-expensive way to create a medical school, he said, and it means lower tuition for future doctors.

An ambitious schedule calls for the school to open in fall 2019, and there is reason to believe this timeline can be met. The Burrell College of Osteopathic Medicine in Las Cruces, N.M. – a private, for-profit institution – was founded in 2013, received provisional accreditation in 2015 and began classes this year.

It’s important that the Assemis have previous experience with a medical-education launch. They opened a private pharmacy school in Clovis four years ago. Of the 170 pharmacy students, 61 percent are from the Valley, said Florence Dunn, president of Clovis Health Sciences University.

There will be those who bemoan the fact that the Clovis school won’t offer a doctor of medicine degree, as do the schools housed on University of California campuses.

But physicians educated at osteopathic institutions are vital to America’s health care network. According to the American Association of Colleges of Osteopathic Medicine website, it represents 33 accredited colleges in the United States, including one in Vallejo and one in Pomona. Osteopathic colleges are educating about 26,000 future physicians – more than 20 percent of U.S. medical students.

Starting a medical school is expensive. There are faculty and administrators to recruit, land to buy, buildings to construct, equipment to purchase and partnerships with hospitals to form. Accreditation requires meeting exacting standards. According to the Las Cruces Sun-News, investors put $110 million toward the Burrell medical school.

If the Assemis are successful, the payoff for the Valley will be huge.

Youngsters who want to become doctors will have a greater chance of realizing their dreams. Residents will have access to better health care. And, according to a consultant’s report prepared for the Assemis, a medical school in Clovis, with more than 90 faculty members and the potential of about 150 students, would pump $100 million annually into the economy.

This medical school would be a life-changer for many. We urge Valley residents, and especially our leaders, to support this mission. There undoubtedly will be bumps and hurdles along the way, so it is vital that everyone focus on what’s possible and what’s best for our region.