Columns » Warwick Sabin

Doctoring our growth

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On the same day that Arkansas Children’s Hospital (ACH) surgeon Jonathan Drummond-Webb was pictured in the newspaper with another young child he had saved with a revolutionary heart procedure, I went to a dinner party in Little Rock populated with young doctors of all kinds. That is, they specialized in different areas of medicine and came from all over the world. Many had trained at prestigious schools in our nation’s largest cities. It was as intelligent, interesting, and diverse a group of people as one could encounter anywhere, and in the coming years their contributions to our community will go far beyond the health care they provide. As fortunate as we are to have cutting-edge companies like Alltel, Acxiom, and Stephens Inc. headquartered in Central Arkansas, they cannot compare to the $4 billion annual economic impact generated by the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences (UAMS) and its affiliates, which include ACH and the Central Arkansas Veterans Healthcare System. Medicine is a dynamic field that utilizes the most advanced technology, and therefore depends on the nimblest and most innovative minds. In that sense, think of Little Rock’s combined medical institutions as a high-tech Fortune 500 company, attracting highly educated, well-paid personnel to practice their trade in state-of-the-art facilities. Some of the doctors I met at the party said they applied for positions at UAMS or ACH because the programs there were among the highest-ranked in their specialties. A closer look reveals a medical infrastructure that is world-class by any standard, and more impressive in light of our state’s poverty and education levels: • For the last nine years, U.S. News and World Report listed UAMS among the top 50 hospitals in the nation. • The same publication ranked the UAMS geriatrics department eighth in the nation (Yale’s program was ninth). • UAMS is home to the world’s largest treatment center for multiple myeloma, a rare and deadly form of cancer. • The UAMS faculty includes the “father of modern neurosurgery,” one of the world experts on head and neck surgery, and other prominent doctors and researchers. One lesson that can be derived from the success of the Little Rock medical community is that more can be accomplished when our state allocates its resources cooperatively, instead of dividing them along regional lines. UAMS is the only medical school in Arkansas, and it has benefited from the generosity of notable Northwest Arkansas philanthropists (the Harvey and Bernice Jones Eye Institute) as well as from those more associated with Central Arkansas (the Jackson T. Stephens Spine and Neurosciences Institute). The focused attention on one medical infrastructure helps the entire state, because our doctors are trained at a quality institution before they bring their services to local communities, and top-ranked programs are available for patients from all over Arkansas. With a disproportionately unhealthy population and significant deficiencies in health care delivery, particularly in rural areas, it is very important that every dollar is spent thoughtfully. There are less measurable benefits as well. Among the young doctors I met, the ones who grew up in Arkansas did not anticipate staying, and those from elsewhere never thought they would end up here. But now they are starting families and plan to remain in the state, because while Little Rock does not have all of the advantages of larger cities, especially in terms of culture, their six-figure salaries go farther here, and they have been charmed by Southern hospitality and the quality of life. At the very least, what that means for Arkansas is: Parents who understand the importance of a good education and who will demand that for their children; a deeper tax base for the kind of schools they will demand; and more support for cultural institutions, fine dining, and other amenities. Currently 522 of the 539 resident physicians at UAMS, and most of its 118 fellows, are under 40 years old, and 125 come from other countries. In that sense, these young doctors constitute a core that will create the very cultural and intellectual atmosphere that they worried was lacking when they came here. That will make it easier to retain and attract the best people in all walks of life — in essence reversing the brain drain that has plagued Arkansas for decades. This is a case of public and private financing channeled efficiently to achieve excellence instead of mediocrity, a broad common good instead of a narrow interest, and progress across the social and economic spectrum, instead of retreat. In short, Arkansas is seeing the wisdom of one of the oldest bits of advice: Marry a doctor.

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