TYLER, Texas (KETK) – Healthcare shortages in East Texas are projected to reach critical levels in the coming years.
The University of Texas at Tyler School of Medicine is aiming to address those shortages and expand access to healthcare locally.
Founding Dean of the UT Tyler School of Medicine Dr. Brigham Willis spoke with KETK’s Neal Barton to bring the subject in focus.
UT TYLER MEDICAL SCHOOL
Willis is uniquely positioned for success in a role bringing the UT Tyler School of Medicine to reality. His previous job was in Arizona where he was a faculty member for another startup medical school.
“My favorite thing to do is to innovate and build and create, and this was an incredible opportunity to do that in a place that it can make a big difference,” Willis said.
East Texas is projected to have seven to eight times greater physician shortages than state and national benchmarks. The UT Tyler School of Medicine’s 40-person inaugural class was selected in part to find physicians who will stay in the area to address those shortages. 95% of the class is from East Texas.
“We intentionally recruited students from East Texas, almost all of them are from East Texas counties or East Texas adjacent counties,” Willis said. “The ones who aren’t have some deep connection to the region. That was very intentional, we were trying to get kids who are committed to the region, who want to make a difference, who want to stay here. The whole reason for the medical school was to serve East Texas, so if we train people who just leave, it’s not going to help.”
Recruiting local students was only the first step to getting physicians to stay in the area, Willis explained.
“I think the first step is recruiting them from the region and getting someone who has a deep, personal tie and a desire to want to make a difference,” he said. “The second thing is providing them with training after medical school so they can stay here.”
They’re building residency programs for students to learn specialties.
“When you finish medical school, you can be any kind of doctor, but the specialty you want to do, you have to do a few more years of training,” Willis explained. “We’re building residency programs in every field of need for East Texas, so they can train here. Not only that, but we’re embedding the programs in some of the communities all throughout the region.”
In the video below, Willis explains the main supporters that helped bring the medical school into a reality:
HELP FOR EAST TEXAS
A 2021 study done by UT Tyler about the Health Status of Northeast Texas showed that the 35 East Texas counties are the least healthy in Texas. If that area were its own state, it would be the least healthy state in the union.
Willis said the UT Tyler School of Medicine should help.
“It’s a combination of problems. I think number one is lack of access to care… you have to leave the region to get care for so many different things,” Willis said. “In many counties, there aren’t even doctors, even primary care doctors. We have a county in East Texas, Marion County, where there isn’t even one doctor in the whole county.”
He said they are focusing on all the healthcare workforce needs in the area.
“We have a fantastic school of nursing, amazing school of pharmacy, school of health professions… you need healthcare teams, it can’t just be a doctor,” Willis said.
The new building will be on Beckham Avenue and Lake Street, just south of UT Health East Texas. Though the main building will be in Tyler, the school is made to serve communities across the Piney Woods.
They plan to address health issues by focusing in part on preventative medicine.
“Instead of just talking about, ‘You need this pill for your hypertension,’ here’s a whole diet and exercise plan that will address it instead,” Willis said.
To see the full conversation, including viewer-submitted questions, catch East Texas In Focus on FOX51 News at 9:30 p.m. on Saturday.