Passion of a few visionaries makes UNLV School of Medicine a reality

Image courtesy of TSK Architects / Co Architects

The future home of the UNLV School of Medicine.

A dozen quintets of UNLV students have been probing the valley’s neighborhoods the past few Thursdays, taking note of markets, liquor stores, clinics, pharmacies and access to public transportation. After six weeks, during which they will have also completed EMT certification at area firehouses, they will apprise one another of the nuanced lives inside those ZIP codes.

This is the charter class of the UNLV School of Medicine, the chosen 60 of 909 applicants whose graduate studies began July 17. The dean of the school, Dr. Barbara Atkinson, and her faculty trumpet its diversity (31 are women; 13 are Asian, 11 Hispanic, five black) and intellect — their combined Medical College Admission Test scores rate higher than the national average.

A diminutive 74-year-old, Atkinson believes the immersion of those apprentices into local environments will entice them to become fixtures themselves (Atkinson was interviewed for this story before her recent illness and emergency surgery; she is expected to have an extended convalescence.). In 2020, the school hopes to welcome 120 students; it plans to quadruple that figure by 2030.

How the influx of medical professionals will affect Las Vegas is as compelling as the forces that shifted the school from fiction to fruition. The abysmal state of the valley’s health services industry — in the bottom 10th percentile of nearly every credible national ranking — demanded an organic endeavor that, for decades, had been snuffed by caustic elements.

Where do you go for quality medical care in Las Vegas? The airport. A small army of furious denizens aimed to eradicate the quip that long ago became rote to natives and longtime residents.

Barbara Atkinson

Barbara Atkinson

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UNLV’s nascent program is housed temporarily at its Shadow Lane campus. Across from a second-floor classroom is a stylish theater. In the anatomy lab at the end of a hall, six large $100,000 Sectra computer screens display virtual cadavers in minute detail.

This, according to Atkinson, is the country’s lone med school that does not contain a single physical corpse with which to study the human body.

Dr. Jeffrey Fahl, a professor of pediatrics and chairman of the anatomy program, guides a small group of visiting academics through a tutorial. On a screen, he flips over the image of a cadaver, a former Texas inmate who donated his body to science, from backside-down to frontside-down with the flick of a fingertip. You couldn’t do that so easily, Fahl boasts, with the real thing.

A woman inquires about the location of the piriformis — pelvic muscles and tendons. She once injured hers training for a triathlon. Painful, she says. “Months of rehab.” Several fingertip taps by Fahl and, voilà, the delicate tissues appear in glorious magenta.

Immediately north of this structure, a condemned building has been razed to make way for a sleek headquarters at 625 Shadow Lane. The county donated the property only after Green Valley-based physician Tony Alamo urged Clark County Commission Chairman Steve Sisolak and UNLV President Len Jessup to finally consummate the deal.

Atkinson expects ground to be broken by the end of the year. A Las Vegas Medical District, buoyed by the UNLV School of Medicine, is projected to have an annual economic impact of $3.6 billion, with the creation of more than 24,000 permanent jobs, by 2030. The British Medical Journal reported that the city would receive $12 in benefits per invested dollar.

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Nevada Gaming Commission Chairman Tony Alamo presides over a meeting in November 2016.

The eventual boost in quantity and quality of doctors will be dramatic, says Alamo, chairman of the Nevada Gaming Commission and former head of the Nevada Athletic Commission. The UNR School of Medicine started in 1969 and established subsidiary, and substandard, operations in Las Vegas.

“Politics,” Alamo says of why UNLV had never had a namesake med school. “It had to do with money, direction and control.”

Shameful, says UNLV professor Robert Lang. At Virginia Tech, he was an advocate for a medical school in Roanoke, Va., to serve a population of 800,000 in the southwestern part of the state. “Roanoke had a medical school before Las Vegas — Roanoke. … We’re the first city in the U.S. to have an Ikea and not a med school; you get an Ikea when (population hits) 2 million, by the way.”

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Robert Lang

Robert Lang

Lang is no ordinary instructor. He is executive director of both the Lincy Institute and Brookings Mountain West, and an expert on urban growth, economic development and population dynamics.

He’s a tenured UNLV professor at the Greenspun College of Urban Affairs, so short of bopping a colleague in the nose, he’s untouchable. That shield would serve him well in jousts with many northern factions resolute against a UNLV School of Medicine and southerners with northern loyalties, who would rebuke Lang and threaten his job.

Catalysts include eye doctor Mark Doubrava, Las Vegas Sun publisher Brian Greenspun (who also produces VEGAS INC), Las Vegas Metro Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Kristin McMillan, Fulfillment Fund Las Vegas CEO Lindy Schumacher, Gov. Brian Sandoval, Sisolak, Jessup and Alamo.

Lang, however, is a bull. He’s 58, Rutgers University-educated and a fast talker certain of every word. Greenspun and Schumacher, among others, coaxed Lang to leave a prominent post at Virginia Tech for UNLV in January 2010. His $196,000 base salary is split between the state and the Lincy Endowment fund at UNLV.

Brookings and other entitities were commissioned to compose a comprehensive statewide economic study, only three of whose 178 pages described the dearth of health services in Las Vegas, that was completed in 2011. To get more specific about health, Lincy tapped Tripp Umbach to detail the manifold benefits of a UNLV School of Medicine in a 2013 report; UNR’s statewide economic impact of $285M ranked lowest of the country’s 134 med schools.

As a Nevada System of Higher Education Regent, Doubrava deftly used both analyses to curry influence. The state’s ancient north-south enmity was always present. In the summer of 2013, Lang and Doubrava half erupted when they discovered a 20-year moratorium on new professional schools in Nevada passed by the Board of Regents in 2005. Humiliating, Lang says. Doubrava helped rescind the rule in December 2013.

A mild-mannered cornea-transplant specialist, Doubrava had made a UNLV School of Medicine his compulsion. Alamo says Doubrava “went to war.” Lang likens Doubrava to the actor Henry Fonda in the 1957 film “12 Angry Men.” As Juror 8, Fonda is the lone rational figure who convinces, one by one, 11 detractors to agree that a young murder suspect is being railroaded.

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Dr. Mark Doubrava speaks at an editorial board meeting at the Las Vegas Sun offices on Tuesday, March 26, 2013.

Doubrava, 54, was not so pragmatic when Dr. Thomas Schwenk, the dean at UNR’s med school, tried to keep Las Vegas as a Reno satellite by pitching a $220 million, 280,000-square-foot medical academic center, requiring UNLV to finance a building bearing a UNR banner.

It was another example of Reno browbeating Las Vegas, Doubrava said publicly. Today, he says, “Appeasement, diversion … they had no intention of doing that. I’m like, ‘You’ve had 35 years and you haven’t invested (significantly, in Southern Nevada) yet.’ ”

Schwenk believes he was following consensus. “I’m sorry he felt that way … I had not heard (Doubrava) say that. I’m sorry if that’s what he thought.”

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UNLV’s brain trust has followed a model that is paying dividends for the University of Central Florida College of Medicine, established in Orlando in 2006. Providing free education to its inaugural class, and 25 endowments for the next three, was borrowed from UCF med school Dean Deborah C. German’s syllabus.

“You offer free tuition the first several years,” Lang says, “get coteries of strong medical students, and they build your reputation.” In 2011, UCF attained Carnegie Research/Very High designation, the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching’s confirmation of extensive, rigorous research and innovations that stimulate entrepreneurship, job creation and economic vitality.

Carnegie’s Tier One status, moreover, lures tens of millions in federal grants. That is Atkinson’s goal for UNLV, and Lang predicts it could happen late in the next decade or the early 2030s. The ramifications of such prestige, coupled with the imminent construction of a $1.9 billion domed stadium for the National Football League’s Raiders, could reap further prestige, benefits and funds, for Las Vegas and UNLV.

Academic résumés are prized when top-tier athletic leagues — like the Big Ten or Pac-12, elite Power 5 conferences — seek to expand. That led to Rutgers and Maryland joining the Big Ten, and Colorado and Utah (a former UNLV associate in the mid-major Mountain West Conference, becoming members of the Pac-12.

“The first thing the Big Ten did was review Rutgers and Maryland as research universities, and both were top-25 public institutions,” Lang says. “The Big Ten wrote this press release (saying), ‘Rutgers and Maryland are powerhouses, academically.’ It excuses the fact that they’re going to be (sporting) doormats to these other schools — ‘Welcome, we’re about to beat your ass in athletics.’ ”

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By most accounts, Atkinson has been worth every penny of her half-million-dollar salary. Regent Trevor Hayes has disparaged her for having not yet delivered a nine-figure donor. But I’ll take 100 donors, says Doubrava, kicking in a million apiece.

Nearly $14 million was raised, rapidly, for those 135 scholarships. The state matched a recent $25 million anonymous donation and earmarked more than $50 million to the school over the next two fiscal years. In the 2015 Legislature, Senate Majority Leader Michael Roberson fashioned a tax on taxi and ride-hailing companies such as Uber for the school’s initial $27 million funding.

Lang anticipates Fortune 500 companies Las Vegas Sands, Wynn Resorts, MGM Resorts International and Caesars Entertainment will “make big plays.” He forecasts private donations to hit the $100 million mark over the next year. “In its first year of operation, it will be a bigger magnet for philanthropic support than the entire (48-year) history of UNR’s med school. At this point, there’s so much support for it, it’s nested.”

A month ago, Lang visited Rice University in Texas and marveled at researchers growing hearts in a sixth-floor lab. It may be a long shot to envision someone from this charter class one day conducting similar research at the UNLV School of Medicine. Then again, just the idea of such a school has always faced long odds.

“But this is now,” Alamo said. “These legislators and this current governor had the vision and the wisdom to right a wrong. This will take time, and that time will be measured in decades.”


CORRECTION: This version corrects the name of Dr. Doubrava's speciality. | (July 31, 2017)