Kaiser Permanente Plans Its Own Medical School

The Oakland nonprofit is shaking up the medical school model by opening its own new medical school in 2020 in Pasadena. Plus, KP will waive tuition for the first five classes.


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Photo courtesy Kaiser Permanente

For years, Kaiser Permanente has helped train thousands of doctors, collaborating with university medical schools to offer real-life clinical experience. Kaiser provides real patients, real illnesses, and real doctors to supervise the students. Med school campuses offer the classrooms, teaching labs, and professors.

Many hospitals and health care providers do the same. Typically, this in-the-trenches clinical training comes mainly in the third and fourth years of medical school. The first two years are mostly on campus.

Now, Kaiser is upping its educational mission a giant notch. The nonprofit health care provider based in Oakland is opening a medical school in Southern California next year — a first-of-its-kind. Kaiser Permanente School of Medicine is slated to open in Pasadena in summer 2020 with about 48 students.

But that’s not all Kaiser is shaking up in doctor training.

Kaiser’s medical school won’t charge tuition for its first five graduating classes. In what could be early signs of a trend, Kaiser’s free med school decision comes on the heels of the same move last year by New York University Medical School.

The goal is to keep the medical school dream alive for all potential students, including the many who are highly qualified and passionate but can’t handle the costs or debt.

“We are seeking to recruit a class of students who are diverse in every dimension — in their backgrounds, experiences, identities, personalities, and visions for their future careers,” said Mark Schuster, M.D., Ph.D., founding dean, and CEO of Kaiser’s medical school. “Their common threads will include intellectual curiosity and creativity, a collaborative spirit, and a commitment to serving the needs of diverse patients and communities.”

Schuster told The New York Times earlier this year: “Even middle-class families are finding medical school hard to pay for. We’re going to see how this plays out and learn from it.”

Kaiser expects to charge tuition, estimated at about $55,000 a year, after the first five classes.

Kaiser will cover the tuition costs of its first lucky students from its charity or community benefit obligation. Nonprofit hospitals, like Kaiser, are exempt from taxes but must provide community charity, under the 1969 law that established the exemption. New York University, a private college, plans to raise funds to cover the training of its medical students.

According to the 2017 Kaiser Permanente Annual Report, the organization provided $2.8 billion in community/charitable benefit that year. It had operating revenue of $73 billion. “Health professions education” is one category of Kaiser’s community benefit pie.

Kaiser’s medical school will offer the same comprehensive training as all major medical schools, preparing students for all kinds of careers in medicine. But a focus will be on training family physicians or primary doctors, Schuster said.

“Our school will provide an opportunity to learn the benefits and importance of providing excellent primary care, and we expect that many students will want to go into primary care,” Schuster said. “We also anticipate that students will go into fields beyond primary care, everything from gastroenterology and dermatology to psychiatry and orthopedic surgery. Many may want to pair their clinical work with research, policy work, teaching, health care administration, and other pursuits.”

Students are under no obligation to work for Kaiser in the future.

The United States is facing physician shortages in all areas of care, according to a 2018 report by the Association of American Colleges. The association estimated a shortfall of between 14,800 and 49,300 primary care physicians by 2030. The hardest hit areas are rural communities, which historically have a tough time attracting doctors.

A recent Kaiser press release on the new venture said: “The school aims to prepare future physicians to become collaborative, transformative leaders committed to prevention, fluent in data-driven care, and adept at addressing the needs of underserved patients and communities.”

Kaiser is known for its one-stop-shop health care, where nearly all services are available from the same provider, and often under the same roof. Start at the family doctor, down the hall to the lab, down the stairs to the pharmacy, then nutritional counseling, and returning to see a psychologist next week, an ophthalmologist next month.

Medical school curriculum will tap into this model, called integrated health care delivery. “Our students will learn to critically examine factors that influence their patients’ health in their homes, workplaces, schools, and communities — and become effective health advocates for their patients,” Schuster said.

Like other medical schools, the first couple of years will focus largely on science education in what’s called a state-of-the-art education building complete with meditation area and a rooftop “student wellness” space. Clinical training with real patients will expand through the years, using Kaiser and other clinics throughout the Los Angeles region, effectively as an extended campus.

The school will also use an increasing popular medical training model called Longitudinal Integrated Clerkship or LIC, where students follow the same patients for years, as many doctors do. These clerkships will start the first year of medical school with primary care, adding specialty care in the second year in obstetrics and gynecology, pediatrics, psychiatry, and surgery. Third- and fourth-year students will further explore medical specialty areas.

In the planning stages for years, KP’s new venture has met largely positive response from other medical schools in California, Schuster said. Kaiser tapped the expertise of many colleagues to help develop its model, he said.

“I would like to think that our school has generated excitement in the medical education community because we have the opportunity to do something new, and therefore add to the advancement going on in medical education. Continued collaboration will be key — we will all be able to share our experiences in what works best for training students. I think we are all excited about the future.”

When word of the venture hit the public a few years ago, some skepticism was voiced. A 2015 article in Becker’s Hospital Review, which reports on the business and legal ends of medical car, quoted health care consultant John Deane as saying the concept is “fraught with risk” and could be “a huge waste of money.” Especially, he said if it turns into an academic model, training specialists.

But Deane, then president of the Advisory Board Consulting and Management, a research firm specializing in improving health care delivery, went on to say: “On the other hand, they have an opportunity to do this in a new and different way that could be a form of disruptive innovation that could become a new standard for teaching doctors.”

Editor's note: This article has been revised because the original URL misspelled Kaiser Permanente. Additionally, the name of the medical schoool is Kaiser Permanente School of Medicine.

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