HARLINGEN, Texas — The dean of the new medical school in South Texas said Wednesday he will concentrate on producing doctors interested in remaining in the medically underserved region.
Dr. Francisco Fernandez said one of his goals for the School of Medicine at the University of Texas-Rio Grande Valley is to attract future doctors with ties to the area.
"This will be an opportunity for them to study medicine, stay where their families are, and serve their community," Fernandez said at a news conference in Harlingen.
Fernandez, 62, said he will also focus on bringing in those interested in Hispanic health issues, which in the Valley would focus on high rates of obesity and diabetes in its predominantly Hispanic communities.
"There is no place for anyone who wants to have a dedication to Hispanic health," he said. "The place they will want to be is here."
A recent study found the area has higher rates of obesity and diabetes than the rest of the state and nation, with nearly one-third of South Texans classified as obese. About one in nine has been diagnosed with diabetes, according to a study published in August by the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio.
One of Fernandez's first tasks will be to hire a diabetologist, said Dr. Francisco Gonzalez-Scarano, dean of the School of Medicine and vice president for medical affairs at the UT Health Science Center at San Antonio.
"We want the school's focus to mean something to the people in the Valley," Gonzalez-Scarano said.
UT Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa, a surgeon from Laredo, said part of the strategy to increase the number of physicians in the fast-growing border region includes providing medical students with residency programs at hospitals in the area.
"There is not a critical mass of residency slots so having a medical school and residency slots is the answer," Cigarroa said.
The Texas border region has some of the largest pockets of uninsured in the country because of a fast-growing population and a lack of jobs that offer private health insurance.
The school will be established around existing UT System health facilities in Hidalgo and Cameron counties and is expected to enroll its first class in fall 2016.
Justine Guerrero, a 25-year-old nutritionist, said she hopes having a medical school in the community also helps improve health education.
"There is a lack of information here; people don't know how to deal with diabetes, how to eat better," said Guerrero.
She said she returned to the Valley after graduating from Texas A&M University at College Station because she wanted hands-on experience on dealing with diabetes.
"The school will be a breath of fresh air for the community," she added.