LSU will provide the largest group of students — 14 — among the entering class of 150 when the Edward Via College of Osteopathic Medicine, or VCOM, opens for its first classes in Monroe in July.
At least part of the reason rests in the familiarity that LSU has developed with VCOM, private and nonprofit, which operates programs leading to the doctor of osteopathic medicine at Virginia Tech; with a seven-college consortium in Spartanburg, South Carolina; and at Auburn University in Alabama. Via’s first medical program opened in Virginia in 2001. VCOM offers a four-year medical program, with two years focused on classroom studies and two more focused on clinicals.
Robby Bowen, director of pre-health programs at LSU, said LSU pre-med students have gone to VCOM campuses for their medical degrees for several years, especially if their residences were in states where VCOM medical programs are located. For example, he said, pre-med students from Alabama who attended undergraduate school at LSU have often applied for the VCOM medical program located at Auburn University. It opened in 2015.
“They have been working closely with us,” Bowen said of VCOM, with representatives attending health fairs at LSU and recruiting the campus. He said LSU has a large pre-med program, with some 350 students applying to medical schools every year.
Most of them, he said, want to attend LSU’s medical schools in New Orleans or Shreveport or Tulane Medical School. But without enough places for qualified students, Bowen said VCOM would make an attractive alternative, especially for those interested in family practices.
VCOM broke ground in 2018 on the 100,000-square-foot, $31 million medical school on the campus of the University of Louisiana at Monroe. It’s ready to occupy. VCOM is renting 10 acres on the campus and, by agreement, students will have access to facilities on the ULM campus. Via is paying for the medical school’s construction.
VCOM sought a partnership with ULM because, from the outset, when its first medical school opened in 2001, VCOM’s mission was to provide doctors to underserved areas, such as in Appalachia. Northeastern Louisiana itself has several areas that are underserved for medical care, especially in its Delta region and in other isolated areas.
That’s how VCOM attracted first-year medical student Madison Lambert, an Arnaudville native who earned a degree in biology at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, applied unsuccessfully for medical school, and earned a master’s in biomedical science at Mississippi College.
She said her journey to med school started as a non-traditional student at UL, where she worked her way through while helping to support her family. She was, she said, a “late bloomer” who was initially attracted to becoming a doctor by pursuing yoga — the mind and body connection fascinated her.
“I always wanted to serve others,” she said. So during her graduate work she applied again, this time to VCOM in Monroe with the goal to practice in primary care or family medicine.
Doctors of osteopathic medicine — D.O.’s — generally enter family practice, although they can specialize. Doctors of medicine — M.D.’s — more oftentimes specialize. In the U.S., there are 36 medical schools for doctors of osteopathic medicine — the one at ULM will be among the newest. D.O’s are particularly valued because there is a shortage of family practice doctors in the United States.
“The D.O. model is more holistic,” said Bowen, “perfect for developing lifelong relationships with patients and doctors. They treat the whole person.”
While LSU is providing VCOM with the most medical students this year, the Nos. 2 and 3 schools for medical students there are ULM and nearby Louisiana Tech, with 11 each. Other University of Louisiana System schools sending medical students to VCOM are: Nicholls State, 4; McNeese State, 3; Grambling State, 1; Southeastern Louisiana, 1; and the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, 1.
Pre-med students enrolled at the University of Louisiana System’s nine member universities — Grambling, Louisiana Tech, McNeese, Nicholls, Northwestern State, Southeastern Louisiana, University of Louisiana at Lafayette, ULM and the University of New Orleans — may find a new advantage for admission at VCOM through an agreement between the medical school and the UL System.
At the April 23 meeting of the UL System’s board, the system and VCOM entered into a partnership through which the medical school will interview at least 10 qualified pre-med students from each campus — at least 90 students in all — every year.
“A shortage of medical personnel has never been more apparent than today,” Dr. Jim Henderson, president of the UL System, told board members. “This partnership with Edward Via has the power to change that, especially for rural Louisiana. This is an exciting opportunity for our remarkable students that will ultimately benefit the entire state.”
Cindy Shepard Rawlins, VCOM vice president for communications, said the 10 promised interviews per campus do not represent a limit: VCOM will interview more UL System students if they have the right credentials for medical school admittance. She said there is no minimum number of admissions for Louisiana in any medical school class. But, she added, VCOM built a campus in this state because Louisiana is underserved for medical care.
That fact isn’t lost on Lambert, who said in her rural hometown, health care was scarce. She said when she completes her medical education at VCOM, she intends to return to practice in an underserved area like Arnaudville.
Right now, she said, VCOM has made an agreement for a minimum number of interviews for the UL System, but it might make agreements with other interested universities or systems, too. If such agreements form, Rawlins said, they will be announced.
Rawlins said 58 of the 150 students entering VCOM’s first class in Monroe come from Louisiana; 36 are from Texas; 14 from Florida. Students admitted also come from Xavier University in New Orleans, 2; Our Lady of the Lakes, 1; and Tulane, 1. Other notable undergraduate campuses sending medical students include Cornell, Georgetown, Purdue, Gonzaga, Texas A&M and the University of Texas-Dallas.
“One of the interesting things about VCOM is that it recruits students from rural or medically underserved communities who grew up knowing the need for physicians in those areas,” Rawlins said. “Across VCOM’s four campuses, many students come from rural and small size Appalachian and Delta communities. … These are the students who are most likely to want to return to provide medical care in the communities where they grew up, or even in the communities where they served their clinical rotations.”
VCOM at ULM is expected to draw new classes of 160 annually, for a total of 640 enrollment. That’s a lot of new doctors, and a lot of opportunities for Louisiana pre-med students seeking a seat in medical school.
“They have a good reputation,” said Bowen. “We are excited to see that partnership here.”
Lambert, who’s grown weary of being idle during the pandemic, can’t wait for July, the start of medical school in Monroe.
“I’m so ready to start,” she said.
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