story by Michael Tilley
Editor’s note: Story is updated with changes and additions throughout.
Fort Smith could soon be home to Arkansas’ first college of osteopathic medicine and one of just 31 in the U.S., thanks to a more than $58 million investment from the Fort Smith Regional Healthcare Foundation (FSRHF) and a grant of 200 acres from the Fort Chaffee Redevelopment Authority (FCRA).
Officials with the FSRHF, the FCRA and area cities made the announcement during a Tuesday (Feb. 18) afternoon press conference at the River Valley Nature Center at Chaffee Crossing. More than 85 people attended the press conference.
The possibility of such a medical school estimated to have a $100 million annual economic impact on the region was first reported by The City Wire in December 2013. At the time, Foundation officials were in the feasibility phase of the project.
FSRHF Chairman Kyle Parker told The City Wire that a fully operational school would serve about 600 students, and employ around 65 (full-time equivalent jobs) with an average salary of $103,000. That impact does not include adjunct professors that will be needed for the school, he said.
The school is targeted to accept its first cohort of students in the fall of 2017.
Revenue from the 2009 purchase of Fort Smith-based Sparks Health System could be used to help build and operate the medical school. When Naples, Fla.-based Health Management Associates (HMA) acquired Sparks in a deal valued at $138 million, part of the money was used to create the Fort Smith Regional Healthcare Foundation.
Foundation initiatives include supporting scholarships for individuals seeking advanced medical training, the Community Dental Clinic in Fort Smith, health education programs in area schools, and other medical training options.
The college of osteopathic medicine plan has has early supporters. The Community Health Centers of Arkansas, which provides medical care in Arkansas’ rural areas, supports the idea, according to Tom Webb, executive director of the FSRHF. Endorsements also have come from the Arkansas Osteopathic Medical Association (AOMA), the Arkansas Society of the American College of Osteopathic Family Physicians (ACOFP), and the Arkansas Osteopathic Foundation (AOF).
Osteopathic medicine, according to the American Osteopathic Association, is “a complete system of medical care with a philosophy that combines the needs of the patient with the current practice of medicine, surgery and obstetrics; that emphasizes the interrelationship between structure and function; and that has an appreciation of the body's ability to heal itself.”
On Tuesday, the FSRHF Board of Trustees voted to move forward with the project and hire a CEO and chief academic officer for the school.
Tuesday afternoon, the FCRA approved providing the school 200 acres near Chad Colley Boulevard, with the land valued at $4 million.
Working with the Arkansas Osteopathic Medical Association (AOMA), the FSRHF has developed several partnerships with regional medical providers. According to the FSRHF statement issued Tuesday, Mercy Health System, Sparks Health System, Cooper Clinic, the Choctaw Nation Health Services Authority and Community Health Centers of Arkansas “have indicated their desire to play integral roles in the clinical rotations and residency education of the proposed college.”
"The AOMA is extremely excited about the development of the proposed Arkansas College of Osteopathic Medicine to be located in Fort Smith,” Dr. James Baker, president of the AOMA, said in the statement. “We will continue to develop, partner with, and support those providing state-wide resources to help advance the Fort Smith Regional Healthcare Foundation's mission of establishing the school."
FCRA Executive Director Ivy Owen also said during the press conference that the FCRA has assisted “off and on for two years” with the project, and that the FCRA Board conducted “a lot of due diligence” before agreeing to provide the land.
Frazier Edwards, executive director of the Arkansas Osteopathic Medical Association, said the association was “extremely excited” to have this school planned for Arkansas, and that the association “will continue to develop and funnel resources” to the school.
Fort Smith Mayor Sandy Sanders called the school a “game changer” for the region.
In his remarks and media interview Tuesday afternoon, Parker said FSRHF Trustee Jim Walcott challenged the foundation to “move the needle” on the effort to “fill gaps in healthcare and provide care for the medically underserved regions in Arkansas and Oklahoma.”
The result of Walcott’s challenge could be a 200-acre campus built out in several phases. An initial layout drafted by Oklahoma City-based Crafton Tull shows the campus located immediately east of where a proposed third Fort Smith high school is located. The site is on both sides and just south of the Chad Colley Boulevard entrance into Chaffee Crossing. The plan calls for 87 acres on the west side of the boulevard and 113 acres on the east side.
The first phase of the medical school campus includes a 60,000-square foot building, several smaller buildings, a campus green, main entry, and a proposed pond. A second phase includes a “village green” area with more buildings.
Future development around the campus includes space for a medical office park and commercial and retail development.
Owen said the school is “highly compatible” with the Chaffee Crossing development goals.
“We are very excited to be a part of the plans to build this osteopathic medical university. Their plans dovetail nicely with our plans for this area. The wooded, open space, walkable-style campus is exactly what we want for Chaffee Crossing,” Owen said in the statement.
There are 30 colleges of osteopathic medicine (COMs), offering instruction at 40 locations in 28 states. There is not an osteopathy school in Arkansas. Twenty-four of the COMs are private; six are public. Should the development of an osteopathic school in Fort Smith happen, it would be a private, non-profit institution and not dependent on continuous public funds from the state.
Approximately 60% of practicing osteopathic physicians (DO) practice in the primary care specialties of family medicine, general internal medicine, pediatrics, and obstetrics and gynecology, according to information provided by the FSRHF.
Arkansas ranks 48th in physician accessibility in the United States. The western side of the state, including the Fort Smith region, has been identified as the most underserved area in Arkansas, according to the FSRHF.
“FSRHF was presented the opportunity to increase availability of care within medically underserved areas of the state by addressing the severe shortage of physicians through the development of a college,” noted the FSRHF statement.
In his notes, Parker thanked the following individuals for helping during the research phase of the project.
• Mr. Doug Babb, CEO, Cooper Clinic
• Dr. Cole Goodman, President, Mercy Clinic
• Dr. Jason Hill, Chief Medical Officer, Choctaw Nation Health Services Authority
• Ms. Sip Mouden, CEO, Community Health Centers of Arkansas
• Mr. Charles Stewart, CEO, Sparks Hospital