A new $110 million donation to the University of Utah’s medical school will help it address one of the state’s biggest roadblocks for people trying to get the health care they need: a serious shortage of doctors.
The problem is the most acute in Utah’s rural and remote areas, where patients have to drive more than three hours to get to a hospital. Others, especially in impoverished communities, are waiting months to get an appointment with their family physician or forgoing regular treatments for things like cancer and kidney failure.
The historic gift to the U. comes from the prominent Eccles family, who are longtime philanthropists and hope now to help solve these issues.
Utah’s medical challenges “all existed before the pandemic, but COVID has just showed us how bad it really is,” said Katie Eccles.
The donation was announced Wednesday to a roar of cheers and clapping from a packed room of supporters gathered for the unveiling and those watching online, too. The money will primarily be used to train more medical students and innovate new ways to help the hardest-to-reach-patients.
“Access for so many people in our state is difficult,” Katie Eccles added. “But we all need care. So now we’re asking, how can we do better?”
The $110 million is the largest single amount that the Eccles family, known for its business and banking acumen, has ever donated — though it has given millions to the U. over the past few decades. And it’s the most the U.’s School of Medicine has ever received.
To honor the gift, the U. will name its medical school after Spencer Fox Eccles, the family’s third-generation patriarch and a university alumnus, who has been a longtime advocate for improvements to health care.
Eccles bowed his hands together in thanks as the crowd before him stood in ovation. “I hope it will benefit our state and region for decades to come,” he said.
His name, along with his late wife Cleone’s, already is emblazoned on the health sciences education building, which Eccles sat in Tuesday afternoon, staring up at a portrait of his “beautiful sweetheart” in the lobby. And his late father’s name is on the side of the building next door for the medical library, a commemoration after Spencer Stoddard Eccles died from cancer. The new name for the medical school falls on the 50-year anniversary of that naming, which was the first major contribution from the family.
“It was $100,000, which was a lot at the time,” Eccles said.
Smiling next to his daughters, Katie and Lisa, who run two of the family’s foundations providing the new donation, he added: “This is all humbling and wonderful.”
The U. also honored him with a new white lab coat with “Spencer Fox Eccles School of Medicine” printed across the front. Eccles proudly put it on while on stage and didn’t take it off for the rest of the event.
As legacy donors to the U., other members of the family have also since been recognized, too, in the pharmacy department, the human genetics lab, the business school and for their contributions to the football program with Rice-Eccles Stadium. (And the naming continues at other institutions across the state.)
Michael Good, the dean of the U.’s School of Medicine and who is also currently serving as the interim president of the university, joked that administrators tried to track down every building on campus with a connection to the family and “the whole map was just glowing red.” That’s especially the case around the medical park, where a quick walk will take you past plaque after plaque with the Eccles name.
But Good suggests that the latest contribution from the family could have the widest impact yet.
The U.’s medical school in Salt Lake City is the only one in the state. And it ends up covering patients from much of the West, amounting to about 10% of the country, Good said.
“That’s just a huge population to serve,” he added. “If you live by here, you can just see the helicopters landing all the time bringing in people who need help.”
But the school isn’t turning out as many doctors as are needed to respond to that demand, Good noted. Utah, he said, remains behind the national average for the number of physicians per residents.
Citing statistics from the World Health Organization, he notes that the state has 23 doctors for every 10,000 people. The country is at 29 — and even that isn’t enough, the dean said.
“We knew we were behind before the pandemic,” he added. “And we’re probably getting further behind. A lot of people delayed care because of the virus. We’re going to have to play catch up with that. We just don’t have enough people on staff.”
That includes screenings for cancer, Good noted, as well as mental health care that many postponed.
Areas without doctors and clinics are known as “care deserts.” And the literal deserts of Utah are filled with them. Most of the residents of central Utah don’t have a hospital within 30 miles of their houses, he said. The Navajo Nation in the southeastern corner of the state has historically had few options for people to receive care. The closest physicians for some in the western part of the state are a minimum three-hour drive.
That uneven distribution of medical staff is a huge hurdle. But even along the Wasatch Front, which has plenty of facilities, people are facing extreme wait times to see a doctor because of the population size. The shortage is impacting almost everyone, Good said.
The dean said there’s definitely been an increase in interest with more students applying to the U.’s medical school since the pandemic — a phenomenon that has been seen across the country. But until the donation from the Eccles, the University of Utah hasn’t had the capacity to accept and train more. That will soon change.
Here are the ways the school is planning to use the $110 million to address the shortage and get more doctors out into the communities that need them.
Expand the size of each class of medical students
This is the primary and most obvious way the $110 million donation will be used to fix the issue, but Good said it will take time.
Currently, the U.’s medical school admits 125 students each year. With four years of training, there are 500 students total at a time.
The money from the Eccles will go into an endowment. And the interest on that will be used to hire more faculty and offer more scholarships so that more students can come to the U.
The hope is to gradually get to 155 per class in the next three or four years, Good said. That will likely come by increases of 10 or 15 students at a time. It will also require state and federal approval.
Along with that, Good said, the school would also like to budget for more medical residencies (continued training that occurs after graduation from medical school). It currently has 800 residents, half of which are paid for by the federal government. The extra money could expand the program so that more individuals can do the work for their specialties here.
“I truly believe this will grow the number of desperately needed health care providers statewide,” said Gov. Spencer Cox during the announcement Wednesday.
A specific focus on expanding the classes will be bringing in more diverse candidates. That includes more individuals of color but also people from more remote locations in the state who may want to return to their hometowns to work there in the future.
Cox said the pandemic has exposed disparities in medicine, with communities of color being devastated by the virus. This effort from the Eccles will also start to address that, he said.
Incentivize graduates to stay in Utah
Currently, two-thirds of the doctors who work in Utah went to medical school at the U. Good would like to see that increase.
He’s working with the Eccles family on ways to incentivize more graduates to remain in the state when they’re done with their residency programs. That could come through bonuses, for instance, or even a setup where the school helps pay off a doctor’s student debt if they stay here.
“We know the state needs them,” Good said. “This will really help with access.”
Train doctors faster
Part of the donation will go toward researching ways to improve the shortage. One idea that Good has is getting students through medical school and their residencies in less time.
This is currently being tried in the pediatrics department at the U. When students get to their last two years of medical school there, Good said, they’re also starting to pick up some residency work — essentially overlapping to save time and money.
Innovate new ways to do medical outreach, especially to ‘care deserts’
With the pandemic, Katie Eccles said, doctors have had to learn new ways to connect with patients, such as through telehealth virtual appointments. She would like to see more approaches like that in reaching out to remote and rural locations.
Good is also proposing programs where medical students spend several months training in those areas, such as caring for an entire family.
Ayesha Patil, a current fourth-year medical student at the U., said she’s previously worked on the Navajo Nation and wants to ultimately work in a rural or underserved community when she’s done with her ophthalmology residency.
“I’ll go just about anywhere that doesn’t have good access,” she said. “It’s important for these people to have good care.”
Telisha Tausinga, a second-year medical student at the U. who grew up in St. George, said that’s her plan, too. She’s particularly interested in covering the remote areas of southern Utah.
“If the pandemic has taught me anything, it’s that vast disparities still exist in our health care system,” she said. Tausinga believes it’s “our generation’s greatest medical responsibility” to address that.
A new building for the school of medicine
The current medical school facility is 60 years old, Good said, and “deteriorating.” Many students don’t end up having their classes there because of the state of disrepair.
Part of the donation will go toward a new building. It will be constructed next to the old school on campus and — like what was done with the new Salt Lake City International Airport — when the new facility is completed, the other will be torn down.
Most of the floor plans have been designed. Good anticipates it will take six to 12 months to begin construction and two years after that to finish.
The facility will be state-of-the-art with new equipment, which will help better train doctors. And it will have bigger lecture halls to accommodate the growing number of students.
The Eccles family said they’re excited by the possibilities there. But they say the focus should be on what students learn in the building. “A building is nice,” Katie Eccles said. “But this is about what happens inside that building.”
Part of the donation will also go to advancing research, especially in cardiovascular health. That was an important area of study for the late Nora Eccles Treadwell, a member of the family, whose foundation is funding part of the gift.
Attached to the lapel of Spencer Eccles’ suit jacket is a tiny brass pin that says “110%.”
It started as a marketing campaign when he ran First Security Bank, a nod to customers that the corporation would go above and beyond. It was also how he raised his kids, Lisa and Katie added, saying their dad always pushed them to give a little more than their best.
Eccles still wears the pin now to remind himself of that attitude in what he does every day.
And it was based on that, he said, that he came up with the $110 million amount to donate to the U. He noted the school originally asked the family for $90 million. And when he wanted to give more, Eccles said with a laugh, “They didn’t say no.”
Former U. President Ruth Watkins, who spoke at the event Wednesday, joked that she’d never seen a donor respond to a university’s request for money by wanting to give more. And the school gave him a stethoscope and a ophthalmoscope to thank him for the heart and vision in increasing his donation.
With the changes ahead and more still to come to improve the doctor shortage, Eccles said hopes that medical students will take on the same ethos of 110% that he’s used in his life.
Katie Eccles noted: “My father wants it to inspire physicians in the making, wants them to strive and really care for patients. This is just the start of that.”