Med School

LSU’s Pennington Biomedical Research Center Executive Director Steve Meysfield has drawn up plans for a medical school at the center’s Baton Rouge campus. (Credit: Taylor Balkom)
LSU’s Pennington Biomedical Research Center Executive Director Steve Meysfield has drawn up plans for a medical school at the center’s Baton Rouge campus. (Credit: Taylor Balkom)

By McKenzie Womack | LSU Student

LSU's Pennington Biomedical Research Center in Baton Rouge is seeking to open a four-year medical school focused on research, and the idea has drawn tentative support from the LSU System Board of Supervisors.

The LSU medical education expansion, still in proposal stages, would be a branch of LSU Health New Orleans. Each of the four years of study would enroll about 25 students, said Pennington Executive Director Steve Heymsfield, with a total of 100 total students.

Initially, the school would add students a year at time.

Steve Nelson, dean of LSU Health New Orleans, said the medical school already has regional programs, but expanding to Pennington is one way to offer students more opportunities. He said the possibility of expanding the Lafayette branch at ULL, which is directed toward primary care, is another option.

There is nothing concrete, as yet, said Nelson. "It is all dependent upon securing additional funding."

A Pennington medical training program has initial support on the LSU Board of Supervisors, said member Ronnie Anderson of Ethel, La.

"There are more applicants than positions in Louisiana," said Anderson. "This is a great opportunity for Baton Rouge and for opening up opportunities for med students. It can keep students and doctors in the state."

Board member Lee Mallett of Iowa, La., agrees. "If that's what we decide to do, it's a great thing. Anytime you can increase doctors and education, it's great."

Opened in 1988, Pennington, which is located on Perkins Avenue in Baton Rouge, is one of the 10 campuses under the LSU System. It is a stand-alone unit whose focus is research. Its mission is to eliminate chronic disease, Heymsfield said. Its research has gained national recognition.

It will probably be a year and a half before any new medical school program could open, Heymsfield said. The final plan must have the approval of the LSU Board of Supervisors, which has indicated its initial support.

"It would be a place to train specialized kinds of physicians," Heymsfield said. "Our focus is to train researchers. Those researchers would go on to be academics and physicians and repopulate the medical schools in Louisiana."

Students who wish to attend Pennington would apply for the LSU medical school in New Orleans but indicate an interest in research. Because it will be a branch campus, administrative departments such as admissions would remain in New Orleans, Heymsfield said.

"We wouldn't recreate all of that here," said Heymsfield. "There would have to be some commuting back and forth."

He said student numbers are regulated, so schools cannot simply add students. Students from Pennington would come from the other LSU medical school campuses. The LSU System has approximately 1,200 medical students, said Samuel McClugage, assistant dean of Admissions at LSU Health New Orleans. Less than 10 percent of the students would study at Pennington.

"It might be based at Pennington, but it will be a collaborative effort with the campuses and other hospitals here," Heymsfield said.

Heymsfield said there is a possibility of classes in New Orleans being televised at Pennington. Pennington doesn't need to duplicate a complete medical school faculty.

Discussions with Pennington's connection to Shreveport are only on the roughest level, but Heymsfield said there has been "good, spirited collaborations and rapport with both the New Orleans and Shreveport campuses."

Robert Barish, chancellor of LSU Health Shreveport, referred questions to LSU Health New Orleans.

To be a certified medical school, even a branch, the school must go through an accreditation process that requires a school have 10 years of funding on-hand before it begins, Heymsfield said.

He is studying ways to fund the school, and there might be a bit of extra state funding available, as well as support from donors and small businesses, he predicted.

Nelson said the cost to educate one medical student is approximately $55,000 a year.

Because it is a public institution, state law would dictate Pennington's tuition. LSU Health New Orleans' yearly tuition is $20,590 for in-state students and $43,082 for out-of-state students.

"In-state tuition is ridiculously low…It's free by national medical school standards," Heymsfield noted. In contrast, students attending Tulane — a private medical school in New Orleans — pay $51,000 - $59,000 a year.

Pennington's medical school would follow a slightly altered approach to traditional medical schools.

Students usually are in the classroom for their first and second years, but rotate through hospitals their third and fourth years, Heymsfield noted. "Actual medical school classrooms are only for the first two years. Because Pennington's intended program is focused more on research, we would probably house the third and fourth year students."

Heymsfield said first and second year would take nearly the same classes as most medical students, but with some tweaking to include more research.

But third and fourth years students would conduct serious research, he said.

Heymsfield acknowledged some politicians are less than enthusiastic.

"There's a little bit of tension surrounding the idea among politicians in New Orleans that maybe the whole medical school might come here," Heymsfield said. "After Katrina, the medical school did come here for two years…we know it can fit, but more than anything, we want to collaborate and strengthen the medical school in New Orleans…We don't want to yank it out of New Orleans."

Nelson said he does not believe this will diminish the program at New Orleans.

"The idea is to offer the students a wider range of options," Nelson said. "We're not trying to sacrifice one for the other … We want to develop opportunities that will offer slightly different career opportunities for the students of Louisiana."

The school's name is undecided, Heymsfield said.

"Whatever it is, it will have LSU in the title," he said. "The rest of the name depends on who funds it and things like that. LSU Pennington and LSU School of Medicine are some names people have talked about."