Health & Medicine

New medical school in Elk Grove makes history

Medical students Jonathan Huang, left, Zain Lalani, and Tyler Ellis observe a demonstration on performing an orthopedic exam at California Northstate University College of Medicine in Elk Grove last month. These first-year medical students are attending the first for-profit medical school in the nation.
Medical students Jonathan Huang, left, Zain Lalani, and Tyler Ellis observe a demonstration on performing an orthopedic exam at California Northstate University College of Medicine in Elk Grove last month. These first-year medical students are attending the first for-profit medical school in the nation.

Amie Cai, 25, took a year off after she graduated from UC Berkeley to work as a laboratory manager and apply to medical school. She didn’t get in. Anywhere.

Cai, who grew up in Folsom, decided to get more experience. She “shadowed” Dr. Kenan Si at a walk-in clinic on J Street in Sacramento where she could talk to patients in Chinese.

When a new medical school in Elk Grove opened for business last year, Cai jumped at the opportunity. So did 59 other students in the inaugural class at California Northstate University College of Medicine.

The first for-profit traditional medical school accredited in the United States hopes to make a dent in a physician shortage and lack of medical school slots in California and nationwide.

The school was accredited in June 2015, took applications over the summer and signed up a full class by its launch in early September.

Students who landed a spot still pinch themselves to be sure it’s real.

California Northstate’s opening comes at a time when many for-profit colleges are under fire for misleading students about their job prospects and earnings, and saddling them with high student loan debt. In the most recent case, the Federal Trade Commission sued DeVry University last month.

Students at California Northstate acknowledge the risk, but say they’re glad they got in.

“When I heard about this new school in my hometown of Elk Grove, I thought, ‘What the heck?’ ” said Chris Phillips. “For me, this is a dream come true.”

At 30, Phillips is the oldest in the class. He’s married, has three children and a master’s degree. He taught high school physics and shadowed a doctor at a local pediatrics clinic before applying for medical school in 2016.

“It’s an interesting group,” Susan Ely, assistant dean of student affairs, admissions and outreach, said of the student body. “It tells you immediately there are way more qualified medical students than places for them, especially in California.”

More than 52,500 students applied to medical school for the 2015-16 school year, but only 20,631 enrolled, according to the American Association of Medical Colleges.

A total of 1,232 new students enrolled in the 12 medical school programs in California last fall, AAMC figures show. There were more than 67,000 applications. Students typically apply to two dozen schools or more because the market is so competitive.

“That’s a lot of wasted talent,” said Dr. Joseph Silva,California Northstate medical school dean.

California is particularly tough because people like to attend school in the state — and practice here afterward.

“It’s a risk to go to a brand-new school, but (California Northstate) is an accredited California medical school, ” said Shermilla Pia, a new student from Davis. “It’s close to home. My family is here. So is my boyfriend. I’m part of creating something – and that’s pretty huge.”

The class is diverse. More than half the students are Asian. Male students outnumber females by more than two to one. Almost 80 percent of students are California residents. For now, the school is not accepting applications from foreign students.

The lopsided gender mix was a surprise. Women usually equal men in enrollment or come in a little higher.

“(Selection) was all done in seven weeks, in batches,” Silva said. “In the first rush, men, quite frankly, had a better record. In the second batch, fewer women were invited for interviews.”

Beyond that, Silva had no explanation. This is something the school will watch, he said.

Students don’t seem to care about numbers. They see themselves as pioneers.

“It doesn’t feel like a rigid, set-in-stone program,” Cai said. “We are the school. We can help improve it along the way.”

California Northstate is the first traditional for-profit to be accredited by the Liaison Committee on Medical Education. The only other for-profit is a Rocky Vista University College of Osteopathic Medicine in Parker, Colo. It opened in 2006.

The plus of starting a school from scratch with investor funding is the ability to get the program off the ground quickly.

Backers raised more than $50 million to fund the school. Now open for business, the school gets more than $3.2 million a year in tuition and fees from a class of 60 students.

“Profit, nonprofit makes no difference. The school is what you make of it,” said Gopal Kodumudi, another student in the inaugural class. “The matriculation rate at the pharmacy school is great, so I have no worries.”

Debt is a fact of life, students say. The $54,000 annual tab is lower than some private medical schools. In-state tuition and fees at UC Davis, the other medical school in town, are about $43,000 this year.

“We’re taking out loans,” said Cai. “Anywhere you go, it’s going to be high.”

The school launch was quick, but the program has been in the works for years.

It’s part of a university that also includes a school of pharmacy, undergraduate college of health sciences and post-baccalaureate program to help students who want to improve their chances of getting into a medical, pharmacy or other health-related school.

The medical and pharmacy schools share a campus on West Taron Drive in Elk Grove. The building used to be an AAA call center. California Northstate bought it in 2011 for $7.1 million.

The model at the medical school is an integrated approach that brings basic science and clinical expertise together from the beginning. The traditional approach is two years of basic science and anatomy before two years of clinical study with patients.

“We actually start with clinical study and the 120 different ways a patient presents to a physician,” said Dr. Ann Poznanski, associate dean of curriculum.

Then students learn the underlying science behind the patient condition and see what it looks like in the anatomy lab.

“This gives them something that actually makes sense,” Poznanski said. “Teaching in this more integrated way has more sticking power.”

Students also teach each other.

The focus recently was on hip, knee and joint pain. Broken into groups of four, students practiced their medical skills on actors posing as patients with a joint problem. Students took turns knocking on the door, asking questions and examining a patient. Those not on the spot scribbled notes, wondered out loud – and occasionally laughed.

“It’s really cool how we can really interact with a potential patient and see how we come off as doctors, even though we are still students,” said Zain Lalani, who drew the short straw and had to go first.

“This is a safe environment where they can make a mistake and can correct it,” said Dr. Ralitsa Akins, senior associate dean of medical education and accreditation. “We are developing a habit.”

In one exam room, professor Hanns Haesslein kept a steady banter going as he watched each student.

“We’re not just interested in the bones, for crying out loud,” he said. “What do you feel? Push it in and out.”

Physical diagnosis is part of the detective work of being a doctor, said Haesslein, an obstetrician/gynecologist in private practice at the Sacramento Maternal-Fetal Medicine Medical Group. “I’m doing this because I love it. It’s a challenge because every day, there is another thing we need to work on, plan for, assess and change.”

Dr. Ravinder Khaira, a local pediatrician who is medical director of four clinics in the area, is another member of the faculty at California Northstate.

“It takes advantage of my advanced degree and offers a chance to form the new school,” he said. “The students? They are amazing. They are intelligent, very enthusiastic and happy they’ve been given this opportunity.”

There is a looming problem for medical students here and throughout the nation, however. About 1,000 current medical school students won’t match with residency spots when they graduate this year, said Dr. Julie Freischlag, dean of the UC Davis School of Medicine.

The federal government pays for most resident training, but capped the number of positions in 1997. There are more graduates, but the only new slots are funded by hospitals or other sources.

“It’s good to have an increase in the number of medical schools as the nation tries to solve the problem of not enough doctors,” Freischlag said. “But we do need to find new places for them to train.”

At a glance

California Northstate University School of Medicine’s inaugural Class of 2019:

  • Enrollment: 60
  • Total applicants: 686
  • Acceptance rate: 8.8.%
  • Female students: 19 (32%)
  • Male students: 41 (68%)
  • California residents: 47
  • Out of state residents: 13
  • Race/ethnicity: 19 Caucasian; 33 Asian; 3 African American; 3 Hispanic; 2 Pacific Islander
  • Average Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) score: 32
  • Average GPA: 3.48

Source: California Northstate University School of Medicine