New medical school opens its doors to aspiring doctors

University of Colorado School of Medicine medical student Ashlee Pruett

Dr. Tom Moore (D.O.) practices family medicine in Grand Junction, a specialty that fewer doctors are pursuing. Rocky Vista University hopes to produce more primary care physicians.

For 25-year-old Ashlee Pruett, there is no nobler profession than being a doctor and, perhaps more importantly, no better place to practice medicine than western Colorado.

“I do have a passion for under-served areas,” Pruett said.

The Grand Junction native said her two goals in life, being a doctor and working on the Western Slope, moved her
to apply for one of the coveted spots in Rocky Vista University’s first class.

The university, Colorado’s newest medical school, has made its top priority graduating doctors who plan to specialize in primary care and want to work in rural or under-served areas.

Dr. Tom Moore, a Grand Junction physician and member of Rocky Vista University’s board of trustees, said the medical school, based in Parker, has worked hard to attract candidates such as Pruett.

“They really try to focus on people that have an interest in primary care and rural medicine,” he said.

Moore, who works with Western Medical Associates, said the school’s mission and its first class of 160 doctors-to-be are especially important for the state, given its looming shortage of primary care physicians.

Doctors in the primary care field, a broad term for a series of health care specialties, including pediatrics, are often patients’ first points of contact in confronting health problems or receiving preventative care.

Tony Prado-Gutierrez, executive director of both Colorado’s Commission on Family Medicine and the Colorado Association of Family Medicine Residencies, said this shortage of primary care providers has hit areas such as Grand Junction the hardest.

“The aging of the primary care physician workforce and the increasing population outline a bleak future for cost-effective, accessible health care,” Prado-Gutierrez said.

He said the pool of available physicians is so small that patients are often forced to travel to other cities to see physicians in a timely fashion.

“The crisis is already being felt in some areas,” Prado-Gutierrez said.

Dr. Michael Pramenko, a Grand Junction-based primary care physician, said the failure of medical schools to keep pace with the state’s need for primary care specialists comes down to economics.

Pramenko said the average medical school student emerges from school $200,000 to $300,000 in debt.

He said specialists, such as radiologists or cardiologists, can rake in double or triple what primary care doctors make.

“What is not working here is the macroeconomics,” Pramenko said.

Dr. Ronnie B. Martin, vice president for academic affairs at Rocky Vista University and dean of the school’s College
of Osteopathic Medicine, said his school is attempting to overcome this problem through its student screening process.

He said through a rigorous screening process, the school tries to attract aspiring doctors more likely to go into primary care.

Alongside these efforts, Martin said the school is working with policy makers and donors to lower the amount of debt graduating medical students must bear.

“If they give me $5 million in debt forgiveness, I can put 20 primary care physicians a year into under-served communities,” Martin said he told a group of state leaders.

Dr. David West, head of the family medicine practice at St. Mary’s Hospital, said he hopes Rocky Vista University succeeds. Nonetheless, he said he will gauge its success based on what happens after its first graduation ceremony.

“They claim that they want to bring in students that want to go into primary care medicine, and I applaud that goal,” West said, “but they have really no control over it, and their students are going to be in more debt than students going to the University of Colorado School of Medicine.”

Pruett said she is leaning toward practicing primary care medicine but plans to leave her options open.

“I don’t want to have a tunnel vision … but primary care definitely is an option,” she said.

Either way, Pruett said, Grand Junction can plan on having at least one more doctor in the community in the near future.


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