USC School of Medicine might see major increase in enrollment

Dire shortage of doctors predicted next decade

COLUMBIA -- The University of South Carolina's School of Medicine proposed to trustees a major expansion in enrollment, with most of the growth to take place in Greenville.

Dr. Donald DiPette, dean of the medical school and vice president for medical affairs, told USC trustees on Wednesday that South Carolina faces a dire shortage of doctors in the next decade, and that his proposal is the best way to fill the gap.

With 20 percent of South Carolina doctors over age 60, and 40 percent between the ages of 40 to 60, the majority of doctors will retire in the next two decades, he said.

It takes 15 to 20 years to educate a new doctor, DiPette said. Starting a new medical school would cost an estimated $2 billion, he said, and would take years to earn accreditation.

Meanwhile, DiPette said, about 25 percent of doctors come here from other countries.

Harris Pastides, vice president for research and health sciences, said the expansion would require approval of the Liaison Committee on Medical Education.

"We can't go to 120 (students per class) just because we want to," Pastides said. "We'll need the approval of our accrediting agency."

On Wednesday, DiPette laid out a plan that could increase the USC School of Medicine's enrollment from the present 340 students to about 480 by 2010.

Currently, the medical school has 300 students in Columbia and 40 third- and fourth-year medical students in Greenville. Under DiPette's proposal, the number of students would grow to 360 in Columbia, a 20 percent increase. Meanwhile, the number enrolled in Greenville would jump to 120, triple current enrollment.

"That's a modest increase, but one we can do today," DiPette said.

The Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston has about 600 medical students.

The Greenville Hospital System has embraced medical education, renaming itself Greenville Hospital System University Medical Center, and participating in medical research through the Health Sciences South Carolina consortium, which includes USC, Clemson University and the Medical University in Charleston.

Greenville Hospital System is the second-largest system in the state, with 1.4 million outpatient visits annually and 44,000 in-patient stays. It has five campuses with 1,100 beds across the county.

"It's not just a matter of size, it's a matter of commitment to health care education in general," said Michael Riordan, president and chief executive officer of Greenville Hospital System. "I think we're of the same mind (with USC) that there is a need, and we're ready to talk about the next steps. We've been growing in this direction for years."

A new education building on Greenville's Grove Road campus comprises four floors and 240,000 square feet. Two floors of the Greenville medical education building will be devoted to USC's medical education and research.

USC board chairman Herbert Adams said the proposal would address a real need for new doctors at the lowest cost.

"Greenville Hospital System is very anxious for us to be involved there," said Adams, a resident of Laurens. "I'm from a small town. We're short of doctors, and we must increase our number of new doctors."

DiPette did not present a budget, nor did he ask for a vote.

But USC president Andrew Sorensen said he would present a formal proposal for the medical school expansion in April.

"This is a dream that has gone on for years," Sorensen told the trustees.

Sorensen said USC would invite participation in the medical program in Greenville through Clemson University and the Medical University of South Carolina, similar to the cooperation it has forged through Health Sciences South Carolina.

USC medical students have been learning skills in Greenville since 1983. In 1991, the relationship expanded when four students did their entire third and fourth years in the Greenville Hospital System in a pilot program to win accreditation for the system to train doctors.

Last July, 23 USC medical students transferred to Greenville for their third and fourth years, the largest number ever.

The USC School of Medicine currently accepts about one out of 15 people who apply.

"We are turning away outstanding applicants because of the lack of capacity," DiPette said, noting that the Association of American Medical Colleges has proposed a 50 percent increase in medical education nationwide.

But Sorensen said increasing the number of medical students in the Midlands is limited by the capacity of the area hospitals.

The USC School of Medicine was created in 1973 under the federal Teague-Cranston Act to train doctors for underserved areas of the state and to conduct research on South Carolina's greatest medical problems. It has 1,530 graduates, with 1,295 currently practicing medicine. About 636 of those practice in South Carolina.

Pastides said the medical school admits only South Carolina residents, or "people with close ties to South Carolina."