Seeking to give young doctors a taste of rural medicine, UCLA has joined forces with Santa Catalina Island's only hospital in a venture that island officials hope will help keep the doors open at the tiny, 12-bed facility.
The hospital and the UCLA School of Medicine have agreed to bring UCLA residents to the island to treat patients as part of their training. A university physician began practicing at the hospital last week, and the first resident starts work today.
For UCLA residents--medical school graduates undergoing training in their chosen specialties--who are accustomed to big-city hospitals, the four-week stints at Avalon Municipal Hospital will offer the chance to practice medicine in a rural setting, just 26 miles from the Los Angeles County coastline.
For those who live on Catalina, the new ties to UCLA will mean improved health care and a more certain future for their financially troubled hospital, hospital administrator Herman Ruddell said.
"The change for us is going to be dramatic," said Ruddell, who called UCLA "a huge resource base to have at our disposal."
The UCLA affiliation, in effect since July 1, represents a new chapter for the 33-year-old island hospital, which has struggled financially for years.
Starting in 1984, the city-owned facility was operated on contract with Long Beach Memorial Medical Center. But with the island hospital losing thousands of dollars each month, Long Beach Memorial officials decided to pull out when their contract expired at the end of 1992.
Some experts recommended that the city close the facility and replace it with a less expensive clinic that would refer patients in need of hospitalization to the mainland. But hospital backers urged that new ways be found to shore up finances and preserve hospital care for the island's 2,500 year-round residents and its thousands of summer tourists.
The UCLA affiliation grew out of an encounter between an Avalon councilman and Dr. James Puffer, professor and chief of the division of family medicine at the UCLA School of Medicine.
Puffer said he was intrigued by the idea of using the island hospital as a training facility for third-year residents in family medicine.
"The obvious benefit for us is an opportunity to expose our residents to high-quality health care in a rural setting under the direct supervision of a faculty member," Puffer said.
At least 13 residents will train at the hospital each year, with most of them coming from UCLA Medical Center and some from other UCLA-affiliated hospitals.
At a time when health policy experts are bemoaning a shortage of family doctors in rural America, the program could help encourage some residents to consider rural practice, Puffer said.
The Catalina program will allow residents to practice in a small community, away from the huge, high-tech hospitals where they receive much of their training. "There's not instant access to sophisticated laboratory studies or imaging techniques," Puffer said.
The program will be supervised by Dr. William Holvik, a family physician hired by UCLA. The hospital will reimburse the university for Holvik's $90,000 salary and benefits such as insurance.
The arrival of Holvik and the first UCLA resident doubles physician service on the island, Ruddell said. Until this month, the hospital had only two part-time physicians.