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Alice Walton plans to build medical school in Bentonville

by Alex Golden | March 4, 2021 at 9:00 a.m.
Alice Walton

BENTONVILLE -- Walmart heir Alice Walton plans to build an independent, nonprofit medical school in Bentonville.

Construction of the Whole Health School of Medicine and Health Sciences is to start next year with plans to open in 2024, according to an announcement Thursday from the Whole Health Institute.

Walton announced she was creating the Whole Health Institute and Chopra Library, a nonprofit organization focused on improving health care, at a meeting of the Northwest Arkansas Council in January 2020. She called the health care system "a disease care system" during the announcement.

Dr. Tracy Gaudet, executive director of the institute, said Walton will pay to build the medical school. The cost hasn't yet been determined. Where in the city the school will be built hasn't yet been announced.

Holistic approach

"The Whole Health School of Medicine will help medical students rise to the health challenges of the 21st century through a reimagination of American medical education that incorporates mental, emotional, physical and spiritual health, the elements of whole health, to help people live healthier and happier lives," Walton said.

The plan is for the medical school's first class to have 40-50 students, Gaudet said.

"The focus of mainstream medical education, which is very, very important, is diagnosing and treating disease once it's pretty far progressed," Gaudet said.

The new school will train future doctors to focus on preventative health and overall well-being in addition to disease treatment, she said. Treatment could include nutrition, exercise and stress reduction, for example.

"Ninety percent of heart disease can be prevented in day-to-day life," she said.

Building evidence-based approaches, the curriculum will infuse traditional medicine with integrative techniques and will include biomedical sciences, clinical training, medical entrepreneurship and research, according to the news release.

"We are excited about today's announcement concerning the establishment of the Whole Health School of Medicine in Northwest Arkansas," Larry Shackelford, president and chief executive officer of Washington Regional Medical System, said Thursday.

"The core leadership team's stated objective to establish a new medical education platform that focuses on the health of the whole person with a goal of improving outcomes at a lower cost should be the goal of every effort to transform and improve the health of our region," he said.

Accreditation

The program is allopathic, meaning graduates will receive a doctor of medicine degree.

Health sciences degrees and certificates will also be offered, which may include functional nutrition, mental health, social work and health coaching; faculty development in whole health approaches; and national certification of educational programs that align with the principles and practices of whole health.

The school is seeking accreditation from the Liaison Committee on Medical Education, which is recognized by the U.S. Department of Education as an authority that may accredit medical education programs.

Dr. Veronica Catanese, co-secretary of the committee, said the accreditation is for the educational program leading to the medical doctor degree.

"The goal of the MD program is to graduate students who are equipped to move on to the next phase of training, which is residency training, in whichever field they select," she said.

While medical schools can have varying missions, their curriculum must be broad and deep enough to meet certain academic standards, Catanese said. The committee also looks at the schools' leadership credentials and takes into account what else they offer students, such as academic advising. All 50 states and Canada recognize accreditation from the committee.

Schools must receive preliminary accreditation before they can begin recruiting students, she said. The process takes a minimum of 18 months and often lasts more than two years.

The only other allopathic medical school in the state is the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences in Little Rock, which has a campus for third- and fourth-year students in Fayetteville.

"UAMS Northwest looks forward to partnering with the Whole Health School of Medicine and Health Sciences as we continue to educate the next generation of health care professionals and as we work to improve the health of our region and our state," Dr. Pearl McElfish, vice chancellor of the Northwest Regional Campus, said.

Cam Patterson, UAMS chancellor, said in 2018 he wanted to see UAMS have a four-year medical school in Northwest Arkansas.

"We are continuing to explore pathways by which UAMS students could continue all of their medical education in Northwest Arkansas," Leslie Taylor, spokeswoman, said Thursday.

How many faculty will need to be hired for the Whole Health School of Medicine is yet to be determined. However, the organization announced three people who will lead the school.

Dr. Elly Xenakis will be the dean. Xenakis has worked at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio as vice chairwoman for education, division chief of the maternal-fetal medicine division and residency program director in the department of obstetrics and gynecology.

Colleen O'Connor, former associate dean of curricular affairs at Duke University School of Medicine, will serve as executive vice dean.

Dr. Adam Rindfleisch will serve as vice dean for education. Rindfleisch has worked at University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Medicine and Public Health as an associate professor in the department of family medicine and as the medical director in integrative health.

Keeping doctors

The Northwest Arkansas Council, a nonprofit organization with members from the region's largest business, education and health care organizations, published a report in 2019 estimating the area is missing out on about $1 billion a year in health care, largely because people travel elsewhere for specialty care.

The report provided several recommendations to make the region a "health care destination," including establishing a four-year medical school.

After graduating medical school, doctors participate in three-year residency programs under the supervision of other physicians before practicing on their own. The council's 2019 report also concluded more residency slots will keep more doctors in the region because residents are likely to stay and practice where they did their residency.

"Our hope is many of them will choose to stay in Arkansas for their residencies and beyond so that then becomes a pipeline," Gaudet said of future Whole Health students.

Federal law caps federal financial support for graduate medical education at the number of resident slots a facility had in 1996, but when a hospital starts a residency program, it has five years to add slots before being capped. Hospitals that want more residency slots than the government must pay their cost. Hospitals in the region have met their federal caps.

The medical students won't be eligible to be residents until 2028 at the earliest, said Ryan Cork, who oversees health care for the council. The region needs to create the 200 residency slots recommended by the council before then, he said.

"Arkansas is currently a donor state, meaning that we supply more medical student graduates to the national physician workforce each year than we receive. Washington Regional looks forward to partnering with the Whole Health School of Medicine, UAMS and our community physicians to make this goal a reality and secure adequate access to primary and specialty care across Northwest Arkansas for the future," Shackelford said.

The Whole Health medical school is discussing collaboration with all the major health care providers in Northwest Arkansas, according to Thursday's news release.

"Additional access to quality medical education in our area will continue to solidify our region as a health care hub," Aimee Morrell, spokeswoman for Northwest Health System, said. "We will evaluate and identify opportunities to collaborate as the medical school evolves."

Likewise, Jennifer Cook, spokeswoman at Mercy Health System, said "We welcome the opportunity to continue our collaborations with the Institute and this new medical school in forging the future of health care. Establishment of a medical school in Northwest Arkansas will no doubt push us years ahead in our efforts to propel the area to becoming a health care destination."

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Whole Health Institute and Chopra Library, www.wholehealth.org.

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