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Health grant opens door for future UC Merced medical school

POSTED September 29, 2009 10:38 p.m.
The University of California Merced has been awarded a million dollar grant to establish a center to study health disparities in the Central Valley.
In addition to addressing the area’s health woes, the center moves the university a step closer toward the goal of opening a medical school in the Valley.
“It’s very exciting for UC Merced to have achieved the first major milestone in the process of bringing a top-notch medical school to the San Joaquin Valley,” said Chancellor Steve Kang. “We have come a long way in the five years since our campus opened, and we have the support of our dedicated faculty, students, staff and friends in the community to thank for that.”
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services awarded the university $1.3 million over two years to spur the creation of the Center of Excellence for the Study of Health Disparities in Rural and Ethnic Underserved Populations. The grant is funded through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the economic recovery package passed by Congress earlier this year.
The center will offer undergraduate courses that study the variations in health-related treatments, outcomes, and access in the region, as well as conduct research that goes to address those disparities.
“UC Merced is the ideal location for research and education on health disparities,” Kang said. “Our region offers a natural laboratory for education, training and research in this area.”
The university also expects the center will improve the number of students from under-represented and disadvantaged groups performing research in this area, and develop a pool of students who can compete for spots at medical schools across the country.
“Not only will the center draw more students to pursue academic majors in the health sciences, but it will also create a health disparities minor open to all students,” said Maria Pallavicini, a biology professor who will help run the center. “This will create a competitive pool of graduates who may immediately begin work in the field or pursue advanced study in health sciences.”
The Central Valley has long been plagued with a lack of qualified health workers and a higher rate of chronic illnesses. According to the Central California Health Data Information Project report, “Health in the Heartland,” the San Joaquin Valley has some of the highest rates of coronary heart disease, infant mortality, obesity, diabetes and cancer.
U.S. Rep. Dennis Cardoza believes the center has the potential to solve many of the health problems area residents are facing.
“Merced and the surrounding San Joaquin Valley are grossly underserved when it comes to health services,” Cardoza said. “UC Merced’s center for excellence will focus on understanding and treating diseases and conditions that are prevalent here, such as cancer, cardiovascular disease, HIV, obesity and diabetes. But what sets this center apart from any other is that researchers will also hone in on the socioeconomic and cultural factors that influence health disparities in the Valley.”
The center will be led by Pallavicini and Jan Wallander. Pallavicini is a recognized expert in stem cell biology and cancer who continues to maintain a research laboratory at UC Merced. Wallander is a professor of psychological sciences in the School of Social Sciences, Humanities and Arts. He is also co-director of UC Merced’s Health Sciences Research Institute and is known internationally as an expert on risk and resilience processes associated with the health, quality of life and well being of children and adolescents, particularly those affected by pediatric disease or disability.
“As a researcher, I am committed to discovering methods to ensure every child has the best quality of life possible, despite disease or poverty,” Wallander said. “The San Joaquin Valley’s diverse population, narrow economic base, low level of educational attainment and abundant health issues are very real problems, but they combine to make this a very useful place to investigate causes of health disparities — and also to solve those disparities so that every man, woman and child experiences fewer threats to their health, and when needed, has access to top-notch health care.”
Pallavicini and Wallander will develop and oversee research, education and training for the program. They will be assisted by UC Merced professors Andy LiWang, who will supervise graduate student training on health disparities research, and Rudy Ortiz, who will have oversight of undergraduate research in health disparities.
The university’s grant for the center also helps lay the foundation for a proposed medical school at the Merced campus. The addition of a medical school to the campus was being discussed even before the university opened in 2005. The cause was bolstered with the release of two University of California health sciences reports that echoed concerns expressed by a number of national organizations about a projected nationwide shortage of physicians.
“Improving access to health care is a top priority, because it affects everyone,” Cardoza said. “UC Merced’s plans to attract students interested in health sciences will benefit everyone in this region by increasing the pool of qualified workers, and it will serve as a needed building block to bring a medical school to the Valley.”
In February, the Washington Advisory Group — commissioned by UC Merced — completed a report recommending that the university employ a phased approach to building a medical school program, beginning with an undergraduate health sciences program that attracts exceptional students and creates a foundation for graduate-level study in the field. The center’s goals fall within that recommendation.
To contact Sabra Stafford, e-mail sstafford@turlockjournal.com or call 634-9141 ext. 2002.
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