Health Care & Insurance  October 10, 2023

$25M gift, largest in UNC history, propels plan for osteopathy school

GREELEY – The Weld Trust has committed $25 million earmarked for the University of Northern Colorado’s proposed College of Osteopathic Medicine, the largest single gift in the school’s history, UNC announced Tuesday.

The Weld Trust is a philanthropic foundation that awards grants to nonprofit organizations, schools and government entities toward programs and projects that focus on health and education in Weld County.

“This grant is the single largest award to which The Weld Trust has ever committed,” said Tom Grant, Weld Trust’s board chair. “As an organization focused on health and education, we are proud and thrilled to award this grant to the UNC College of Osteopathic Medicine. A project of this magnitude dictates the need for collaboration and financial support toward building a strong foundation. We are honored to get the funding for this momentous project underway. We anticipate this medical school will ultimately create tremendous change for the medical field and in particular for our local community.”

No specific spot on campus to locate the new school has yet been designated, said Deanna Herbert, UNC’s director of news and public relations, in an email to BizWest. “One potential location for the medical school is on the current site occupied by Bishop-Lehr Hall, where UNC has property and facilities that are not being fully utilized,” she wrote. “This location has been explored in-depth in our program planning process, but a location has not been finalized yet.”

UNC’s decision to focus on creating a college that grants Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine (DO) degrees, as opposed to one that grants Doctor of Medicine (MD) degrees as does the University of Colorado School of Medicine, is intentional, according to university officials. While both degree programs lead to the practice of medicine as a physician, osteopathic medicine is one of the fastest-growing health-care professions in the country and the field has a long tradition of providing care in rural and underserved areas, key places where Colorado needs doctors now. The initiative also aligns with and builds on the strength and depth the university already has in its sciences and health-sciences programs, including its nationally ranked nursing and public health programs, as well as other programs in behavioral sciences, biology, chemistry, audiology and speech-language pathology.

UNC’s research into creation of a College of Osteopathic Medicine began in earnest in spring 2021 following conversations with leaders of local hospital systems and community leaders about Colorado’s growing need for more physicians and the university’s role in addressing that challenge.

“Since our founding in 1889, the University of Northern Colorado has made important contributions to meeting the state’s education and workforce needs,” said UNC President Andy Feinstein in a prepared statement. “This includes a history of excellence in health care and health sciences such as our School of Nursing, which has trained generations of nurses caring for Coloradans today. As our state continues to grow, UNC is again called to address a critical workforce shortage — this time for doctors, particularly those focused on primary care and practicing in rural areas.

“Together, with visionary health care and philanthropic leaders, like The Weld Trust and the Richardson family, UNC is prepared to answer that call again,” Feinstein said. “Our proposed College of Osteopathic Medicine will have an impact across each corner of the state by strengthening the health care workforce and meeting needs of Coloradans everywhere.”

According to a projection by the Association of Medical Colleges, the United States will face a shortage of 37,800 to 124,000 physicians by 2034. The shortage is primarily driven by population growth and an increasing aging population, as well as an aging health-care workforce, of which a significant number will be at retirement age in the next few years. That national data reflects a similar story closer to home, as local shortages are further fueled by Colorado’s population growth over the last decade, which was nearly double the national average, and the high percentage of active physicians aged 60 or older who are expected to exit the workforce in the next few years.

According to the U.S. Health Resources and Services Administration, less than 35% of Coloradans’ needs for physicians is currently being met. It’s an issue most evident in rural and underserved communities such as Weld County and so many others across the state, negatively affecting access to care. Additionally, the Robert Graham Center forecasts that by 2030, Colorado will need an additional 1,773 primary-care physicians, a 49% increase since 2010.

“The Weld Trust specifically serves Weld County, which includes many rural communities,” said Jeff Carlson, CEO of The Weld Trust. “There is an increasing disparity between the demand for physicians in these areas versus the supply. If UNC recruits students for the medical school and trains them in a rural environment, it increases the likelihood of them practicing in a rural community. Our goal is that Weld County communities will have the local medical resources they need to be able to thrive.”

UNC, in partnership with an independent consulting firm that specializes in medical education consulting and with the support of a lead gift to explore the idea, launched a feasibility study to evaluate market demand, economic impact and the capacity and commitment of health-care providers to support clinical placements.  

The study found that Colorado’s current medical education infrastructure doesn’t produce enough physicians to meet current and future needs, nor does it support the demand for students who want to pursue medical education in the state. Those findings, coupled with overwhelmingly supportive feedback from UNC’s community, stakeholders and health systems, as well as the university’s Board of Trustees, became the driving force behind the university’s efforts to begin working to create a College of Osteopathic Medicine.

Over the past two years, the university has submitted for applicant status with the Commission on Osteopathic College Accreditation, received statutory authorization from the state to offer specialized degree programs in osteopathic medicine through the passage of Senate Bill 22-056, hired Dr. Beth Longenecker as founding dean for the proposed college and begun to secure the necessary clinical rotation sites required for third- and fourth-year students. One of the next critical steps is to secure the remainder of the funding necessary to open the college.  

“I am grateful for the vision of the board and staff of The Weld Trust in making this gift. Their investment, along with commitments from other local philanthropists, signals a clear need that Colorado must prepare more doctors,” said Allie Steg Haskett, vice president for University Advancement at UNC. “This transformational gift is an example of what happens when people come together around a shared purpose.”  

Feinstein said the university’s next steps include securing the remaining funding necessary and continuing work to identify key health-care partners. 

“As we make progress toward opening the College of Osteopathic Medicine,” he said, “we will look to stakeholders across the state, including our elected officials and leaders in medicine, to join us in meeting this important need.”

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