Health Science Center: A vital part of Fort Worth

Posted Sunday, Feb. 10, 2013  comments  Print Reprints
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D.O.s vs. M.D.s

Osteopathic medicine

A practice that is centered on the whole person, the body's ability to heal itself and disease prevention. Doctors of osteopathic medicine are called D.O.s and are fully trained and licensed to prescribe medicine.

Allopathic medicine

A system in which medical doctors and other healthcare professionals (such as nurses, pharmacists and therapists) treat symptoms and diseases using drugs, radiation or surgery. M.D.s practice allopathic medicine.

Sources: American Osteopathic Association, National Institutes of Health

At a glance

Students

1,949

Faculty

406

Adjunct faculty

855

Graduates

6,003

Research awards

$41 million

Health practice sites

49

Health providers

More than 220

Annual patient encounters

More than 580,000

Square feet of facilities

1.4 million

Source: University of North Texas Health Science Center

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FORT WORTH -- Port-au-Prince was a world of broken bones, crumbled buildings and makeshift tents when doctor-in-training Joanna Gibbons reached the Haitian capital just days after a devastating earthquake in 2010.

"One lady, her hand was completely dead," Gibbons recalled. "Her arm had been trapped under rubble."

Gibbons was one of several medical students from the University of North Texas Health Science Center who voluntarily traveled to Haiti, where hundreds of thousands were dead and even more were injured.

Back home at the Fort Worth campus, experts at the Center for Human Identification analyzed DNA samples taken from Haitian children who had been kidnapped after the earthquake and needed to be reunited with their families.

"We really believe we make a difference," said Arthur Eisenberg, co-director of the Human Identification Center.

The work in Haiti illustrates the reach and range of services provided by the Health Science Center, which has grown from a 20-student school in 1970 to a cutting-edge medical research and teaching facility.

Tucked away on a modest-looking campus among the art museums in Fort Worth's Cultural District, the center is also deeply involved in community-based health programs, in which researchers are exploring treatment options for Alzheimer's disease and searching for solutions to Tarrant County's high infant mortality.

But after its president, Dr. Scott Ransom, was abruptly fired in December, some local leaders have voiced concerns about how the center will recover from the blow -- and what his departure means for the future, especially when the matter of possibly adding an M.D. program comes up.

"I'm afraid we will be on the map for all the wrong reasons," George Pepper, a member of the center's foundation board, said minutes after the Dec. 21 firing.

Others are in rescue mode, urging renewed cooperation among leaders at the University of North Texas System's headquarters in Dallas, the main campus in Denton and the Health Science Center, said Dr. Michael R. Williams, the center's interim president and a former member of the board of regents.

Williams has been meeting with foundation board members to mend fences.

"This institution is extremely important to Fort Worth, and Fort Worth is extremely important to this institution," Williams said.

The UNT System board of regents voted 7-0 to fire Ransom only three months after his contract had been renewed.

Regents and system Chancellor Lee Jackson cited concerns about Ransom's conduct and leadership style, namely his handling of a study that looked at the pros and cons of a proposed merger that would put the Fort Worth and Denton campuses under one umbrella.

The foundation board, with about 30 members, didn't support the merger, which has been tabled.

Foundation board members worried about how the firing would be perceived by lawmakers, who will ultimately decide whether to add a medical doctor program to the school's osteopathic program.

Foundation board members suggested that they haven't been treated as equals by UNT System leaders.

"It felt like we were set up into a position where they didn't want our input," said board member Michele Reynolds, chairwoman of the Healthy Aging Council in Fort Worth. "We didn't have the opportunity to understand what was happening."

'We've come a long way'

The center began as the Texas College of Osteopathic Medicine in 1970. Osteopaths D.D. Beyer, George Luibel and Carl Everett started a private school with 20 students and volunteer faculty.

The next year, the school moved to a renovated bowling alley on Camp Bowie Boulevard, and over the years, it continued to grow. In 1993, the institution was expanded and became the University of North Texas Health Science Center. The Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences was also established then.

In 1999, the center joined UNT's campuses in Denton and Dallas to form the UNT System.

The Fort Worth campus houses the osteopathic medical school, the Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences, the School of Public Health, the School of Health Professions and the UNT System College of Pharmacy.

"We started in that little bowling alley and now look at us. As they say, 'We've come a long way,'" said Thomas Yorio, the center's provost and executive vice president for academic affairs.

Both osteopaths and M.D.s are licensed to practice medicine in the United States. One difference is in philosophy: Osteopathic physicians, or D.O.s, believe that the body has an innate ability to heal itself and thus focus on disease prevention, according to the American Association of Colleges of Osteopathic Medicine.

Some of the institution's work has become part of the larger Fort Worth community. For example, the Cowtown Marathon began in the late 1970s as a research project at the Institute for Human Fitness, which leased space at TCOM's River Plaza campus, Yorio said.

"Over the years, it has grown immensely," Yorio said. "It became Fort Worth's event."

Last February, more than 25,000 runners participated in the marathon and shorter races.

Clinics operated by the Health Science Center see hundreds of thousands of patients and help the community at the grass roots.

Gibbons said she regularly bumps into people who don't realize they have a medical school in their back yard.

"The amount of brainpower in that group of buildings is tremendous," Gibbons said. "They are working to solve global problems, but the benefit is in Tarrant County."

'A developing gem'

Community leaders are proud of the Health Science Center, which was ranked No. 35 in primary-care education on U.S. News & World Report's 2012 list of the Top 50 Medical Schools.

"The University of North Texas Health Science Center plays a very important role in educating quality healthcare providers for Texas and our nation," Mayor Betsy Price said. "Especially as we look toward future physician and nursing shortages, UNTHSC will only increase in its significance to our community, region and state."

The center is Fort Worth's flagship medical institution and serves as a magnet for research and companies with good-paying jobs, said David Berzina, executive vice president of economic development for the Fort Worth Chamber of Commerce.

Its economic impact is about $500 million annually, officials say.

"We'd like to augment the bread and butter of manufacturing and distribution with life science employers," Berzina said.

"In Fort Worth, we want to move forward and carve out a bigger piece of this life science recruitment pie."

Asked how important the center is to Fort Worth, Ransom said it was largely invisible until four or five years ago.

"I believe the UNTHSC is now seen as a developing gem of the Fort Worth community," said Ransom, who was named president in 2006.

Perhaps the highest-profile facility is the Center for Human Identification, which helps solve cases worldwide.

DNA experts will soon help train Libyan scientists to analyze the remains of 20,000 people found in mass graves after the 2011 conflict that led to the overthrow and death of Moammar Gadhafi.

Experts have also earned national attention by helping authorities identify crime victims, including those of serial killer John Wayne Gacy in Chicago.

Locally, Eisenberg said, his center is working with the Dallas County Sheriff's Department to create a DNA database of prostitutes, who are at high risk of being crime victims. So far they have collected close to 300 voluntary samples from women.

"We can provide their families with knowledge about their loved ones" if something happens to them, Eisenberg said.

'Don't Mess With TCOM'

Besides the discord caused by Ransom's firing, the biggest challenge for the Health Science Center is its quest to add an M.D. program.

UNT System leaders need a green light from Texas lawmakers to create such a program, but they face long odds. More powerful university systems -- such as the University of Texas -- have program expansion plans of their own.

There is also opposition from some in the osteopathic field, both locally and in Austin.

In 2010, as word of a possible M.D. program surfaced, a headline on the American Medical Student Association website read: "Don't Mess With TCOM: Plans to add allopathic education to a top D.O. school raises concerns over the fate of the osteopathic identity."

Critics of the M.D. proposal said that an estimated $25 million pledged for the effort won't pay for the program and that the UNT System should instead promote the osteopathic program.

"There are so many things that could be done without creating an M.D. school," said Dr. Scott Stoll, a former chairman of the department of osteopathic medicine at the Health Science Center. "It's like putting two middle schools on a campus."

Getting the program could be especially tricky. Under a bill authored by then-Sen. Mike Moncrief in 1993, the school's name was changed and the legislation stipulated that no M.D. degrees could be awarded.

"The first thing they have to do is get that law changed," said Sam Tessen, executive director of the Texas Osteopathic Medical Association. "They've got to get the legal right to have an M.D. school. To change that, a bill would have to be very specific."

Even if the law were changed, additional legislation would be needed to create the medical school and its funding.

In 2011, the Senate Finance Committee discussed creating an M.D. program, but members indicated that they weren't impressed with Ransom's description of the center's accomplishments, Sen. Bob Deuell, who is also an M.D., wrote in a letter to the Star-Telegram.

No such bills were filed during that legislative session, and none have been filed during this one.

The Health Science Center sits in District 12, represented by Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound. District 10, represented by Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, starts a couple of blocks east, on University Drive.

Nelson would be the likely lawmaker to file bills for an M.D. program, but she said center leaders have not asked her to introduce legislation.

Bill Miller, a political consultant based in Austin, said South Texas politicians have already filed legislation to create a university and medical school. Part of the University of Texas System, it has been informally named the University for the Americas in the Rio Grande Valley. Senate Bill 24 lists four authors and nine co-authors.

"That's a good example of a community coming together on a deal," he said, adding that pushing a medical school through the Texas Legislature requires broad support.

'People need to lick their wounds'

Lobbyist Gib Lewis, a former Texas House speaker who works on behalf of osteopaths, said he has made his opposition to an M.D. program known to lawmakers and UNT System leaders, including Jackson.

"It takes away from the quality of the school," Lewis said.

Health Science Center leaders should instead focus on securing funding for more hospital internships so osteopaths can train, he said.

"I've been involved in it from Day One. It's brought Fort Worth to the forefront of healthcare," said Lewis, whose name graces the front of the center's library.

The designated peacemaker in the spat is Williams, himself a TCOM graduate, who has been tapped to replace Ransom and build support in the osteopathic community.

"This is my alma mater," he said. "I'm not going to do anything to put it in jeopardy, but I am going to do everything possible to enhance it."

Since Ransom's firing, talk of mending fences has emerged -- largely to help in the push for the M.D. program.

"Everyone agrees that the institution is more important than the individual," said Dr. Ron J. Anderson, chairman of the Health Science Center's board of visitors and former chief executive of Parkland Memorial Hospital in Dallas.

"My friendship with Scott Ransom can't stand in the way of the next step for the institution," said Anderson, who wrote to Jackson urging him to reconsider Ransom's dismissal. "People need to lick their wounds and get together," he said.

North Texas could indeed end up with a new medical school someday, Anderson said.

And, in urging that everyone work together to build support for bringing the M.D. program to Tarrant County, he spoke the words almost guaranteed to focus Fort Worth's attention.

"If Fort Worth doesn't do it, it doesn't mean it won't be done," Anderson said. "It will be done in Dallas."

Staff writer Bill Hanna contributed to this report.

Diane Smith, 817-390-7675

Twitter: @dianeasmith1

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