Valley residents are unhealthy, study says. Here's how educators plan to change that

Summit held to discuss health care access in San Joaquin Valley

University of California President Janet Napolitano discusses health care access in the San Joaquin Valley with University of California, Merced Chancellor Dorothy Leland and Assemblymember Adam Gray, D-Merced, in Merced on Friday.
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University of California President Janet Napolitano discusses health care access in the San Joaquin Valley with University of California, Merced Chancellor Dorothy Leland and Assemblymember Adam Gray, D-Merced, in Merced on Friday.

Assemblyman Adam Gray told a gathering of health, education and business professionals Friday the San Joaquin Valley is in need of more medical professionals.

"It's one of the fastest growing, poorest and least healthy regions in California," Gray, D-Merced, said during a health summit with the healthcare, business and education communities at UC Merced, based on a report indicating the Valley is experiencing a shortage of medical professionals, including doctors, nurses and assistants.

Answers to those shortages lie in medical education, according to the report conducted by the office of UC President Janet Napolitano.

For UC Merced, Chancellor Dorothy Leland said, those answers include expanding its undergraduate public health and PRIME medical pipeline programs, building a bio-safety "Level 3" laboratory that could study and find cures to infectious diseases and provide more funding for economically disadvantaged prospective students through scholarships and grants.

The health summit Friday was geared to spark future public-private partnerships to help the San Joaquin Valley's healthcare catch up to its population.

The 98-page report, spurred by Gray several years ago and released in April, highlights the results of an investigation into the Valley's health struggles.

The study found the Valley — including Merced, Fresno, Madera, Stanislaus, Kern, Kings, Tulare and San Joaquin counties — ranked low in air quality, high in poverty, high in uninsured population and high in Medi-Cal coverage, compared to the rest of the state.

The report found the strongest predictors of where a budding physician will eventually practice medicine and build a life are the physician's hometown and where the physician went to residency. And while the demand for nursing degrees is there, the lack of qualified faculty in local nursing programs is pushing down recruitment and retention.

That means expanding medical education in the Valley through the university system is key, Napolitano said.

"As the leading public research university in the country, part of our mission is public service," Napolitano said, noting the report indicates a need to improve medical residency programs, using technology to enhance data collection through telehealth and expanding medical programs at the UC San Francisco's Fresno campus.

The Valley's population has grown 250 percent since the establishment of UCSF Fresno campus in 1975, said Michael Peterson, associate dean of UCSF Fresno.

"They recognized (in 1975) the San Joaquin Valley was a fast growing area. ... And there would be a significant shortage of medical professionals," Peterson said.

UCSF Fresno has been reaching out to middle and high school students to get them more interested in careers in medicine, nursing and other medical professions, Peterson said.

"Students are often coming from financially, educationally disadvantaged backgrounds," Peterson said.

According to the report, physicians who identify as black, Hispanic or Latino make up 10 percent of California's active physicians while they make up about half of the state's residents. Equalizing that representation in the medical professions is important to improving retention of medical students and residents in the Valley.

Napolitano, Leland and Gray on Friday touted UC Merced's advancements in helping public health, despite an economic recession in 2008 that dampened plans to bring a medical school to UC Merced by the 2013-2014 school year.

"It was such a different climate back then," Gray said.

While UCSF Fresno is considered a prime base to expand many of the initiatives discussed Friday, the pathway laid out by Gray's office and UC leadership could also lead to a new medical school down the road, according to the report.

Through partnerships with UCSF Fresno, UC Riverside and UC Davis, UC Merced expanded its health education offerings.

According to the report, UC Merced Public Health Program has admitted five cohorts of PRIME, a program focused on helping medical students with diverse backgrounds. The public health program also started a doctorate program and improved medical education.