Utah’s third medical school secures $50 million in backing and could be enrolling 150 students by 2021, supporters say

(Courtesy of Wasatch Educational) The company behind a proposal to build a medical school in Provo, Wasatch Educational, says the look and feel of the facility would be similar to this Auburn, Ala. campus of The Edward Via College of Osteopathic Medicine.

Utah’s third medical school will be named the Noorda College of Osteopathic Medicine and the for-profit Provo campus plans to admit its first class of 150 students in August 2021, officials said Monday.

The company behind the project, Wasatch Educational, said it had secured $50 million from the Utah-based Ray and Tye Noorda Foundation. Ray Noorda was the CEO of Novell, a former software company based in Provo; the foundation has funded several Utah medical institutions.

Including construction, total start-up costs for the college are expected to reach $150 million, Wasatch Educational Vice President Richard Nielsen said in a Monday interview. He declined to reveal the names of other investors.

A formal announcement of the college was planned Tuesday morning in Provo ahead of a presentation at the Provo City Council’s work session. The council has yet to approve the company’s preferred location — a site which would displace several holes of the city-owned East Bay Golf Course.

The location has drawn strong opposition from golfers, including Provo City Councilman Kay Van Buren, who organized a rally against the project last month. A public hearing is scheduled for Dec. 5.

The college would be the third medical school in the state, alongside the University of Utah in Salt Lake City and the recently-opened Rocky Vista University in Ivins, also a for-profit osteopathic school. Osteopathic medicine aims to put a greater emphasis on holistic care and promoting the body’s own ability to heal.

Nielsen said the new school would enroll 150 students per year for five years, then 175 students after that — a tally slightly higher than yearly enrollment at the U. and Rocky Vista. Wasatch Educational also is the holding company for the Rocky Mountain University of Health Professions, a small private medical training facility in Provo.

The company conducted its first feasibility study for a full medical school in 2010, Nielsen said. Initial project planning began in 2013. Rocky Mountain University of Health Professions would eventually move its operations onto the same campus, he said, though it would be managed independently.

Nielsen said demand for another medical school in the state was clear.

“We’re on a downward spiral in the state of Utah right now,” he said. “There is a huge shortage of physicians.” After successfully operating Rocky Mountain University for almost 20 years, the Wasatch Educational executive said, founding a medical school “is the next step in our progression and our growth.”

Indeed, Utah is in dire need of more doctors — requiring 379 new hires annually to keep pace with population grown and retirements, according to a 2016 report by the Utah Medical Education Council. The state relies on physicians trained out of state for 60 percent of its annual workforce needs, the report added.

Utah had 207.5 physicians per 100,000 residents in 2015 — the 43rd-worst ratio in the nation, according to 2015 American Association of Medical Colleges data.

“The state’s two new medical schools stand to possibly impact the state’s workforce in a variety of ways,” the Medical Education Council report said. “These students may be prime candidates for recruitment into the state’s medical workforce in the most needed areas if they can be tracked through residency and into the job market.”

The tentative plans call for building the school over 24 acres covering holes 10, 11 and 12, on the northwest corner of the golf course. Wasatch Educational has its eyes on several other Utah County properties if the golf course site doesn’t work out, Nielsen said.

Wasatch Educational says the project would provide $62 million in construction business and employ 236 workers in the construction phase, citing an economic impact study by Salt Lake City-based Bonneville Research. Once built, the medical school would employ 121.

The proposal for East Bay would see the three holes reconfigured and built elsewhere, with Wasatch Educational footing the bill.

But later expansions of the campus, in at least 15 years, could require moving at least another three holes on the course. Councilman Van Buren said Monday he worries that as the campus keeps growing, it will eventually “kill East Bay.”

“I’m very much against it and leading a group to help keep it from happening,” Van Buren said. “The golfers are really concerned. We’ve got a real asset here ... to sell it off and try and build [the medical school] on that property makes no sense to me and a lot of other people.”

Nielsen said the public hasn’t received the full picture yet about the proposal.

“I would hope once the public understands the details, they’ll see this is a win-win for the medical school and Wasatch, but also the public and golfing community,” he said. “We want to be good neighbors.”