MISSOULA — A for-profit firm called Manipal Education Americas wants to build its first U.S. medical school in Missoula.
In existence for 50 years, Manipal runs schools in India, Malaysia, Nepal and Antigua, and some of its students do residencies in the U.S. As envisioned, the Montana College of Osteopathic Medicine would enroll its first students in 2017 or 2018.
Neal Simon of Manipal said the school produces doctors who land residencies at top sites in North America, including the Mayo Clinic, Yale School of Medicine, and the University of Toronto. Manipal describes itself as one of the largest owners and operators of medical schools in the world.
The Missoula Economic Partnership made the announcement Friday morning at its investor breakfast. President James Grunke said the possibility comes with "grave concerns," but he and founding member Mayor John Engen both touted the economic development potential, estimating the annual benefit to the state at some $45 million.
"We think this presents a tremendous economic opportunity for our community," Grunke said.
As chairman of the economic partnership, Providence St. Patrick Hospital CEO Jeff Fee spoke a couple of times, but he was silent on the idea of bringing the medical college to Missoula.
Another school, Burrell College of Osteopathic Medicine, is looking to locate in Bozeman at Montana State University, according to the MEP.
Engen said he believes a medical school will open in the state of Montana in the next five years, and he believes Missoula is the right fit, given in part the life sciences complex at the University of Montana.
He said the school could operate as a partner in the community rather than as a competitor.
"During the course of many conversations, I have managed to convince the team from Manipal that Missoula is the finest city in the state of Montana, and likely the finest city in the western United States," Engen said.
Simon said Manipal prefers to open doors in Missoula, and the team has looked at different sites around the city that appear to be good possibilities. However, he said he did not yet know if the local hospitals support the effort.
"If they're not, we're not going to be here. We need to make this a partnership," Simon said in an interview after the presentations.
Manipal would seek to enroll 150 medical students a year, and it has affiliations with 40 teaching hospitals across the U.S. that already offer residencies to its other students, he said. The school in Missoula would be its first brick-and-mortar educational institution in the U.S.
"I don't want to just have a medical school in Montana. I want to have one of the best medical schools in the United States in Montana," Simon said.
In his presentation, Grunke outlined some of the concerns related to opening a medical school. One is the caliber of graduates, he said.
"Are we going to be producing quality students?" Grunke said.
Others include capacity in Missoula for clinical clerkships and residencies and room in the community for 300 students. How would the school affect current residencies? Are enough teaching faculty available? Is the medical community in support?
"Is this what Missoula ... thinks is best for our community?" Grunke said.
The answer to that question is an unequivocal yes, as far as Engen is concerned. In his remarks, he said models exist across the country that show private medical schools can cooperate in the community to produce needed physicians who will work in the state.
He recently met a woman from Browning who would be a great candidate, he said. She wants to practice family medicine at home, he said, and having a college in Missoula would give her a better chance.
"The short version here is the economic development impacts are broad and mighty, but there are also long-term social justice impacts that are at play," Engen said.
MEP estimates the school would create 100 direct jobs and 300 indirect ones in hospitality and other areas.
At the end of his talk, the mayor also took a swipe at Bozeman. In Missoula in recent years, people have been frequently comparing the advancements of this city against ones in Bozeman.
"Bozeman, Montana, should not be home to a medical school, and I will tell you that all day long," said Engen, admitting a parochial bias.
Some for-profit schools, including medical ones, have wound up in trouble. Just last month in North Carolina, the attorney general got a court order to temporarily shut down a medical institute, citing its offering of unlicensed and unaccredited medical courses, according to Consumer Affairs.
On Friday, Simon acknowledged other for-profit schools have had problems, but he said the public should not paint the entire industry with the same broad brush.
"The way you make a profit in the long run is by providing a good-quality product, which in our case is physicians," Simon said.
Before it opens its doors, the college in Montana would be accredited and licensed, he said. He also noted the oversight and requirements to get accreditation for a college of osteopathic medicine are strict.
"So it would be very hard for a for-profit school that wanted to cut corners to get that accreditation," Simon said.
He said he didn't want to denigrate Burrell, but one of its executives flew into a community on a private jet. On the other hand, he said Manipal looks to earn a profit over the long term.
"We don't put our money into private jets. We put our money into medical education," Simon said.
Missoula makes sense as Manipal's first medical school in the U.S. for several reasons, he said.
The need for physicians across the country and in Montana is great, he said. By 2025, the shortage of physicians nationwide is estimated to hit at least 80,000, and possibly 120,000, mostly in the area of primary care.
Montana ranks third-lowest in the country for the number of physicians per capita, he said. It also has one of the highest numbers of physicians who are 60 and older and one of the lowest numbers of doctors under 45.
"So there's clearly a need for more physicians," Simon said.
The state doesn't have a medical school yet, and Missoula is a prime target. He said the city has an excellent university that's strong in the sciences and already offers residencies, and the wider community is attractive.
Medical schools across the country currently offer some 19,000 positions for first-year students, and some 45,000 apply, he said. The average applicant has a 3.6 GPA, he said, and those with a GPA of 3.2 or 3.3 aren't even applying.
Whether a GPA is a good indicator of how a person will perform as a doctor is a question for another day, he said. In general, though, he said the numbers show the educational field in medicine is tight, yet the need for professionals in the industry is great.
So far, tuition is projected to be midway between the highest and lowest in the nation, he said. Currently, Manipal has some 5,000 graduates practicing medicine in the United States.
The school would need roughly 150,000 square feet to 225,000 square feet for its educational program, he said. Manipal has looked at several promising sites in Missoula, including the Old Sawmill District, areas near Missoula College, the downtown Missoula Mercantile, and land close to the airport.
At this point, UM does not have a position on the idea of bringing a private medical school to Missoula, according to the communications vice president. The Missoulian has requested comment from St. Patrick Hospital and Community Medical Center but has not yet received answers.