New medical school in Houston opens with a unique plan

University of Houston College of Medicine is no longer a dream, but reality, after opening this week. After five years of planning, and Houston’s first new medical school in almost fifty years, the first students got to begin their courses this week.

This medical school has a new approach for education to help our neighborhoods, most in need.

"Our medical school is somewhat different. We really have a focus on primary care physicians because we have a great need in our state for more primary care doctors. Also training physicians who'll want to work with under-served communities, be they urban or rural," explains Dr. Stephen Spann, the Founding Dean of the school.

He says they hand-picked the first 30 students, all from Texas, to help fulfill their mission, focusing on students, who want to stay in Houston after medical school and help communities in our area that have the biggest need.

"If you look at life expectancy at birth in our 'healthiest zip code' and our 'unhealthiest zip code', there's over 19 years of difference in life expectancy, if you live in one zip code versus the other. You might think they're miles and miles apart, but when you look at the map, they're very close together," explains Dr. Spann. He says the medical school hopes to train doctors who will work with those underserved computers and find solutions to improve the health in those communities.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the students will mostly learn through live online, interactive lectures. We met up with two of the new medical students, Nabeel Ahmad and Kennedi Wilson. They're excited to be in the inaugural class.

"It's amazing! It's like we get to set this foundation and the culture of Houston College of Medicine. It is a big weight on our shoulders, but I know that I'm in this with the team you know it's a team-based it's not individual," states Nabeel.

"At first, with COVID and everything, I thought starting virtually would be a challenge, but it has actually been really interesting. We've had some amazing lectures already, the faculty is great, our class is great, everyone gets along. Actually this week, we're doing our first clinical focus session which talks a lot about social determinants of health, so we're already getting involved with learning about that and so it's really exciting," exclaims Kennedi.

The students have a lot to look forward to, as crews work to build a nearby $80 million state-of-the-art facility. So far, so good with their experience this week.

"UH has done a really amazing job with the virtual experience and still making it very meaningful. I still feel like I've gotten to know my classmates quite a bit even through the virtual experience," explains Kennedi.

Some things must be hands-on though.

“Fortunately, anatomy lab is one-on-one. Obviously with social distancing involved and only meeting once a week, so they're doing their best for us to have some component of being in a physical environment. I do look forward to when we can have all our lectures and everything in person at the College of Medicine,” smiles Nabeel.   

Nabeel has been a high school teacher in Houston for the past four years. That experience inspired him to help under-served individuals."All my students didn't have access to care for various issues, either they didn't have transportation or they were undocumented, and so how can I close that gap so that they can access that care," ponders Nabeel.

Kennedi says she wants to help communities, like where she grew up in the Third Ward. "I think what a lot of people don't see is there's such great disparities that really can affect the health of the individual before they're even born. So I'm really excited about tackling some of those social determinants of health," says Kennedi. Her dreams certainly match the mission of her new medical school.  

Thanks to an anonymous donor, this first class of students received $100,000 scholarships to cover their tuition and fees. The new campus is expected to be ready in two years and will eventually welcome almost 500 medical students.

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