The Lawrence-Douglas County Health Department announced today that it has partnered with the University of Kansas to form the state's first "Academic Health Department."
Among other things, the research skills of the KU Work Group on Community Health and Development will be utilized to better gauge effectiveness of services and strategies deployed by the health department.
Dan Partridge, the health department's director, said the Academic Health Department would play a pivotal role in helping his agency evaluate and document the successes and failures of policies and systems that aim to improve community health.
“A major focus will be to answer the question: How well are community-based efforts working to improve health,” said Partridge. “We hope the answers will help inform future decisions promoting the health and vitality of Douglas County.”
The Academic Health Department will also function like a teaching hospital for KU students in applied behavioral psychology, the academic home of the KU Work Group, said Vicki Collie-Akers, who leads the group's research efforts.
“We hope to ultimately create a shared research agenda with the health department...to merge our goals with theirs,” said Collie-Akers, who will have an office at the health department.
The health agency and the KU work group already have a history of working together — most recently in facilitating a Comprehensive Community Health Assessment as part of the agency's work toward accreditation.
Among the short-term goals of the Academic Health Department will be implementation and evaluation of the county's first Community Health Plan, another component of the health department's work toward accreditation.
It's difficult to gauge how many Academic Health Departments there are in the U.S., said Kathleen Amos, who leads the AHD Learning Community for the Public Health Foundation in Washington, D.C. There are at least 36, from a list she's informally compiled, but she said that is likely far fewer than there actually are.
She pointed to the most recent National Profile of Local Health Departments (pages 71 and 72), which indicates that about 20 percent of health departments nationwide have worked with a four-year academic institution on program evaluation, and about 35 percent have some sort of written agreement with a university.
The people who run the state’s only medical school say its national accreditation falls in jeopardy or is lost, if money isn’t raised for a new, $75 million structure at its Kansas City campus.
“If you're not an accredited medical school, your students can't take board examinations. Your graduates cannot get into residency programs that are accredited. And in most jurisdictions if you can't sit for your boards and you don't graduate from an accredited residency program you can't practice (medicine), you can't get a license. So accreditation is a huge deal,” said Dr. Glen Cox, the dean in charge of keeping the school OK with the Liaison Committee on Medical Education, the national group that certifies medical schools.
The current education building on the school’s Kansas City campus was built in 1976 and officials here say if it isn’t obsolete it is nearly so, especially given the changes happening in the ways doctors and other health professionals are trained.
“A building built in the 1970s just can't fit the technology needs of today,” said Dr. Steven Stites, acting executive vice chancellor of the University of Kansas Medical Center, which includes the medical school. “We have a structural problem and we can’t renovate it. It would cost more to fix it up than it would to replace it.”
Lecture halls, even in the first year of study, now are considered less important to learning than small practice rooms that allow for simulations that mimic the conditions students — as doctors — will face when they encounter real patients. Also, with growing emphasis on coordinated care within the health care industry, schooling now focuses increasingly on teamwork, not just among fellow medical students but also drawing in nursing students and other health-care trainees.
The school has some spaces for that sort of teaching by doing in small groups, but not enough, according to the people in charge. The accreditation process is so meticulous, as described by Cox, that it even dictates how much private space and storage must be allowed for each resident.
Cox said he is among the few people at the medical school to remember the accreditation problems it experienced in the 1990s, a years-long ordeal he said he would prefer not to live again. And that was before he was the administrator tasked with keeping those things in order.
Need for more docs
Besides warding off accreditation woes, a new school would allow for training more doctors, KU officials said. Experts across the country for years have warned of doctor shortages that have since arrived and are growing and of the need to expand medical schools to slow or reverse that trend.
KU between 1998 and 2007, according to medical school statistics, graduated an average of about 165 medical students per year and 41 percent (an average of about 67 graduates per year) stayed in the state.
The new building would allow the school to have 25 more students per class year in Kansas City and — after counting graduates from expanded satellite campuses in Wichita and Salina — the state should see 96 new KU-trained doctors a year practicing in the state by 2016, according to projections prepared by KU. That would be a net gain of almost 30 doctors a year.
With a generation of baby-boom doctors retiring or soon to retire, many Kansas towns struggle to recruit new doctors. A disproportionate number of the doctors working in the state’s rural and underserved areas are KU graduates.
There are about 259 doctors per 100,000 U.S. residents. In Kansas, however, there are only about 213 doctors per 100,000 residents. The state also is below the national average when it comes to primary care doctors.
According to KU estimates, the state will need 213 new doctors a year by 2030 just to maintain the state’s current below-average ratio. To match the national average, it would need about 285 new doctors a year by 2030.
The tricky part
It’s been known since Coronado traipsed the Plains that gold doesn’t always turn up in Kansas. And, unfortunately, Dr. Glen Cox did not win the Lottery last week (he said), so KU is struggling to come up with a way to pay for the school building that KU and other higher education officials say it must have and that the state needs.