Booming medical school brings life to downtown Pomona

The economic downturn was tough on the urban core of many U.S. cities. But Pomona got a booster shot from an unlikely source: Western University of Health Sciences.

The institution constructed a new clinic and a classroom building as part of a $110-million expansion. The school had previously rehabilitated existing retail space in Pomona’s once-blighted center. Its Health Professions Center, for example, is a renovated former Buffum’s department store. Nearby, a building that once held a JCPenney houses the University Research Center.

The changes have helped entice developers to construct residential lofts downtown. New businesses are sprouting. There’s even a bi-monthly art walk.

“It’s humming down there,” said Frank Garcia, executive director of the Pomona Chamber of Commerce. “Things are starting to come alive. Restaurants are coming back.”

Western University is also well-positioned to take advantage of changing U.S. demographics. As the American population ages, primary care doctors are expected to be in short supply.

Its osteopathic medical school, the College of Osteopathic Medicine of the Pacific, is one of only two in the state and has been churning out general practitioners for more than three decades. With nearly 1,000 students, enrollment is up more than 40% since 2000.

Many of the students were attracted by the institution’s philosophy of patient-focused, holistic healing. Most of them probably will become primary care doctors, reflecting a core tenet of the institution: to provide care for patients in underserved areas.

“We try to pay attention to our community and needs of state, and we were rewarded by prospering in that way to grow,” said Clinton Adams, dean of Western University’s osteopathic medical school.

Started in 1977, private, nonprofit Western University began as a tiny osteopathic school in a strip mall with a few dozen students. Today it encompasses nine colleges that train nurses, pharmacists, dentists and other healthcare professionals.

With total enrollment of 3,300 students and 900 full-time staff members, Western University is among Pomona’s largest employers and an anchor of the city’s downtown.

Garcia, who has worked in Pomona for 40 years, said Western is a big part of that downtown renaissance. Students volunteer in local schools, and the clinic occasionally offers free dental cleanings. Local residents have access to on-campus medical services that include a diabetes center, podiatrists and general family doctors.

That brought Steve White, an unemployed tile layer on disability insurance, to the clinic for a checkup and to refill his heart medication.

The 57-year-old Pomona resident, who is suffering from congestive heart failure, has visited almost monthly. He didn’t realize until a recent Thursday visit that his primary care doctor was trained in osteopathic medicine.

“I didn’t know that there’s a difference,” White said. “I’m just glad to be breathing better.”

White is one of many who still wonder: What is an osteopathic doctor?

Since its inception, the profession has fought for equal recognition and acceptance in the medical field. Today, DOs, as osteopathic doctors are titled, have all the same privileges as traditional MDs. They can prescribe medicine, perform surgeries and go on to specialize in fields such as dermatology and neurosurgery.

The key difference is that osteopathic doctors’ medical training stresses a holistic view of a patient’s care. It also includes about 300 hours of osteopathic manipulative medicine, techniques with which doctors use their hands to manipulate a patient’s bones and muscles to remedy ailments.

California was among the first states to grant full practicing privileges to osteopathic doctors, doing so in 1901. Mississippi didn’t do so until 1973.

The perceived distinction between allopathic doctors, as MDs are known, and osteopathic doctors has largely dissolved. The American Assn. of Colleges of Osteopathic Medicine and the Assn. of American Medical Colleges, along with other medical groups, recently formed a national organization to better coordinate various healthcare professionals.

The profession’s growing acceptance has enticed more students. Enrollment nationally has doubled over the last 12 years to almost 21,000; seven schools have opened in that time. And 1 in 5 U.S. medical students is studying to be an osteopathic doctor.

First-year Western University student Eric Schub, 25, plans to become a primary care doctor. He said he’s confident he’ll land a job once he has completed his residency.

“There’s no real stigma,” Schub said. “I was afraid there would be, but even all the doctors I’ve shadowed, no one knows the difference.”

The median salary for primary care doctors is about $200,000, according to the Medical Group Management Assn.; for doctors with specialties, by contrast, the median is $356,000.

Students enrolled in osteopathic medical schools tend to graduate with more debt than their counterparts in traditional institutions, even though tuition is comparable. That’s because osteopathic schools are newer and have smaller endowments, limiting their ability to offer scholarships.

A U.S. News & World Report list of the 10 U.S. medical schools whose students incurred the most debt included four osteopathic colleges. Western University ranked fifth on the 2012 list, with an average of $203,430 in loans for the average graduate.

That concerns Western University officials, Adams said. He said the university is looking to raise revenue through research grants, donations and patient fees to help lower student tuition.

Still, job prospects for students look particularly robust in California, where only one-quarter of the state’s 58 counties meet the recommended ratio of 60 to 80 primary care doctors for every 100,000 residents. Western University officials tout that about 60% of their graduates go on to practice in Southern California.

Nationally, employment of physicians and surgeons is expected to grow 24% between 2010 and 2020, largely driven by an aging baby boomer population, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Schub said he hopes to one day work at a clinic in Venice, where he once volunteered. He believes the neighborhood’s sizable homeless and immigrant population could benefit.

“The idea is to sort of fill the gap,” he said. “Everyone wants to work in a clinic in Santa Monica, Manhattan Beach or New York City, but it’s not where you’re needed.”