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Phoenix soon will be getting its third medical school, a development which the medical community hopes will help alleviate the state’s severe shortage of physicians.

Nebraska-based Creighton University recently broke ground on construction of its new four-year medical school at Park Central in midtown Phoenix, a project which is expected to take less than two years to complete.

The creation of the new medical school comes as Arizona faces a severe shortage of doctors; the state currently needs about 560 more physicians than it has, and that number is expected to grow to 2,000 by 2030, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges.

While the entire nation faces a physician shortage, Arizona’s shortage of primary care physicians is particularly glaring; the state ranks 44th out of all 50 states in total active primary-care physicians, according to the Arizona Hospital and Healthcare Association.

Guy Reed, dean at the University of Arizona Medical College in downtown Phoenix, said the issue is a pipeline problem and believes Arizona needs more medical students. “We’re trying to move our pipeline so that we get students earlier and earlier on so that we enhance the diversity of our physicians,” Reed recently told the Phoenix City Council.

Creighton’s new medical school is expected to help solve some of the pipeline problem. Robert Dunlay, dean of the Creighton University School of Medicine, expects the school to open in August 2021 and to enroll nearly 900 local students by 2024.

But another glaring issue remains: Arizona doesn’t offer enough residencies and fellowships that provide specialized training to students after they graduate from medical school.

Philadelphia, which is the city closest to Phoenix in terms of population size, has four medical schools, while Phoenix currently has only two. According to data from Creighton University, Philadelphia is home to 3,760 medical students — more than seven times the 520 medical students in Phoenix. Philadelphia also offers nearly 1,800 more residencies and nearly 600 more fellowships than Phoenix.

“Phoenix has a lot of growing to do in this area if they’re going to address the healthcare needs of the future,” Dunlay said.

But the lack of residencies isn’t specific to Phoenix; it’s a statewide issue and one that’s leading to an exodus of Arizona’s medical school graduates. Only 42% of Arizona’s medical students remain in the state after graduation, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges. 

The shortage of residencies in Arizona is no accident, but rather the result of legislative action — or inaction. The state’s Graduate Medical Education program (also known as physician residencies) has not been state-funded in a decade, AZ Big Media reports, thus leaving matching federal funds on the table.

Arizona state lawmakers paid lip service to addressing the issue this year with SB 1354, a bill that would have contributed $20 million to GME, resulting in a $47 million federal match, bringing the total to $67 million in additional funding. But the bill died in the Republican-led House.

While that legislation would have helped, experts insist there’s no one fix for the physician shortage.

“There is no magic bullet,” Dr. David Hanekom, CEO of Arizona Care Network told AZ Big Media. “We need to be addressing our challenges with innovation on all fronts.”

Dunlay hopes adding a third medical school in Phoenix will help. He expects Creighton’s campus to offer 22 residency/fellowship programs and have about 300 residents by 2024. 

If past data is any indication, this could put a dent into Arizona’s physician shortage — KJZZ reports that 75% of physicians stay in the cities where they completed their residencies.

But there’s a long way to go, and not a lot of time to get there, as Steve Purves, president and CEO of Maricopa Integrated Health System (MIHS), told AZ Big Media. “With Maricopa County set to double in population by 2040, we need to solidify a plan today to meet the healthcare needs of the Valley tomorrow.”