Benefis working to bring medical school to Great Falls

A medical school is in the works for Great Falls.

A nonprofit university system headquartered in New York is looking to open the Touro University College of Osteopathic Medicine on property owned by Benefis Health System.

Dr. Paul Dolan, Benefis’ chief medical information officer, said they’ve been working for more than a year to get a medical school into Montana and into Great Falls specifically.

Last year, Benefis was working with Western University, but that plan wasn’t able to proceed so officials reached out to Touri, Dolan said.

It turned out the university president was familiar with Great Falls since he’d spent some time here last summer, Dolan said.

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Benefis has now been working with Touro since the beginning of the year and made progress with the school receiving approval in mid-February from the Montana University System to offer post-secondary degrees in Montana, according to letter of approval from Montana Commissioner of Higher Education Clayton Christian.

“The university’s mission focuses on underserved populations both in terms of medical care as well as educational opportunities, making it a perfect match for Montana,” according to a Benefis fact sheet.

Dolan said Touro plans to submit its application for accreditation on April 1 to the American Osteopathic Association’s Commission on Osteopathic College Accreditation.

That process takes time and is a very detailed application that also includes building plans for the new school, Dolan said. The new school would be built on property owned by Benefis off 26th Street South near the Grandview that Touro would likely lease, Dolan said.

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Touro has five medical school campus around the county with a network for clinical rotations, so Dolan said they’re confident in their ability to operate the school in Great Falls even if Rocky Vista, a private medical school, opens a new school in Billings. That school also received recent approval from MUS.

Dolan said that school was news to them this week, but Touro believes it can develop enough clinical rotations to be successful.

“They are very optimistic in that regard,” Dolan said.

Having a medical school in the state, especially in Great Falls, would help recruit and retain doctors in Montana.

The physician shortage is going to get worse and is increasingly competitive, Dolan said, “so we need to do whatever we can to expose more students to Montana.”

Roughly 39 percent of students will practice in the state where they went to medical school, Dolan said, though often those statistics reflect more populated states. The number increase to about 60 percent of students staying in the state where they do their residency, he said.

Dolan said that Benefis has students that do their clinical rotations in Great Falls and some of them spend their entire third year here. A local medical school would increase the number of students doing their third year at Benefis, he said.

Benefis has had searches going for years for some specialty providers, but the most significant shortages have been primary care physicians, Dolan said, and they anticipate those shortages to worsen.

According to a fact sheet from Benefis, Montana ranks 44th nationally for “accessibility of physicians practicing within
primary care and there are just 872 total physicians practicing family medicine, internal medicine, obstetrics/gynecology, and pediatrics.”

Touro is proposing to have a class of 125 and the earliest feasibility classes could start would be 2024, Dolan said.

The accreditation process will play a role in that timing and whether the agency allows Touro to do a full class the first year.

The plan for the medical school would also include new housing for the students, Dolan said.

“This will have a huge economic benefit for Great Falls and our community,” he said.

According to Benefis, “preliminary estimates show that at full operation, a medical school in Montana could support
more than 360 jobs and generate $74 million worth of annual economic impact.”