Thanks to an incredibly generous and transformational gift from The Weld Trust, the university has moved closer to realizing its vision of establishing its proposed College of Osteopathic Medicine to meet the critical and growing demand for doctors across the state. The $25 million, earmarked for the proposed college, is the largest single gift in the school’s history as well as the single largest gift ever awarded by The Weld Trust.
The Weld Trust is a philanthropic foundation that awards grants to nonprofit organizations, schools and government entities toward programs and projects within health and education in Weld County.
The transformational investment will not only support efforts to address the state’s physician shortage, but it will also help make health care more accessible to thousands of Coloradans.
“As an organization focused on health and education, we are proud and thrilled to award this grant to the UNC College of Osteopathic Medicine,” said Tom Grant, board chair for The Weld Trust. “A project of this magnitude dictates the need for collaboration and financial support toward building a strong foundation. We anticipate this medical school will ultimately create tremendous change for the medical field and in particular for our local community.”
Driven by concerns about Colorado’s growing need for more physicians and the university’s
role in addressing that challenge, UNC began exploring the idea of creating
a College of Osteopathic Medicine in the spring of 2021 after conversations with leaders of local hospital systems and the community.
“Since our founding in 1889, the University of Northern Colorado has made important contributions to meeting the state’s education and workforce needs,” said UNC President Andy Feinstein, Ph.D. “This includes a history of excellence in health care and health sciences such as our School of Nursing, which has trained generations of nurses caring for Coloradans today,” added Feinstein.
“As our state continues to grow, UNC is again called to address a critical workforce shortage — this time for doctors, particularly those focused on primary care and practicing in rural areas. Together, with visionary health care and philanthropic leaders, like The Weld Trust and others, UNC is prepared to answer that call again,” said Feinstein.
The Association of American Medical Colleges projects the United States will face a physician shortage of between 37,800 and 124,000 by 2034. The shortage is primarily driven by population growth and an increasing aging population, as well as an aging health care workforce, of which a significant number will be at retirement age in the next few years. That national data reflects a similar story closer to home, as local shortages are further fueled by Colorado’s population growth over the last decade, which was nearly double the national average, and the high percentage of active physicians aged 60 or older who are expected to exit the workforce in the next few years.
According to the U.S. Health Resources and Services Administration, less than 35% of Coloradans’ needs for physicians is currently being met. It’s an issue most evident in rural and underserved communities like Weld County and so many others across the state, negatively affecting access to care. Additionally, the Robert Graham Center forecasts that by 2030, Colorado will need an additional 1,773 primary-care physicians, a 49% increase since 2010.
“The Weld Trust specifically serves Weld County, which includes many rural communities,” explained Jeff Carlson, CEO of The Weld Trust. “There is an increasing disparity between the demand for physicians in these areas versus the supply. If UNC recruits students for the medical school and trains them in a rural environment, it increases the likelihood of them practicing in a rural community. Our goal is that Weld County communities will have the local medical resources they need to be able to thrive,” said Carlson.
These significant challenges will continue to escalate if not addressed. In late 2021, UNC partnered with an independent consulting firm on a feasibility study to evaluate market demand, economic impact and the capacity and commitment of health care providers to support clinical placements.
The outcome of the study was clear — Colorado’s current medical education infrastructure does not produce enough physicians to meet current and future needs, nor does it support the demand for students who want to pursue medical education in the state. Those findings, coupled with overwhelming support from the university community and Board of Trustees as well as health systems, became the driving force behind UNC’s response to the community’s call to act and begin working to establish a College of Osteopathic Medicine.
“There are many aspects of UNC that will allow us to develop a unique and special college. Most osteopathic medical schools are housed in private nonprofit and a few in for-profit universities. UNC COM will be only the ninth college located within a public university. There is also a need to increase diversity in the medical profession. While increasing numbers of Black and Hispanic students are entering medical school these numbers still need to increase. The American Medical Association recognizes that racial and ethnic diversity among health professionals positively impacts access to care and the quality of care provided to underserved populations. UNC’s commitment to diversity provides a foundation to develop programs targeting mentorship and recruitment of underrepresented minority medical students.” –Beth Longenecker, D.O., M.S., FACOEP, FACEP Founding dean, UNC College of Osteopathic Medicine
Over the past two years, the university has taken several important steps toward making its vision of a new College of Osteopathic Medicine a reality.
- It has submitted for and been granted applicant status with the Commission on Osteopathic College Accreditation.
- It has received statutory authorization from the state to offer specialized degree programs in osteopathic medicine through the unanimous passage of SB22-056 in March 2022.
- It has hired Beth Longenecker, D.O., M.S., FACOEP, FACEP, as founding dean for the proposed college.
- It has raised more than $30 million in philanthropy to support the project and begun work with other donors and state partners to secure the remaining funds necessary.
- It began securing the necessary clinical rotation sites required for third- and fourth-year students.
“I am grateful for the vision of the board and staff of The Weld Trust in making this gift. Their investment, along with commitments from other local philanthropists, signals a clear need that Colorado must prepare more doctors,” said Allie Steg Haskett, ’03, vice president of University Advancement. “This transformational gift is an example of what happens when people come together around a shared purpose.”
According to Feinstein, the university’s next steps include securing the remaining
funding necessary and continuing work to identify key health care partners to secure
clinical rotations and other opportunities
“As we make progress toward opening the College of Osteopathic Medicine, we will look to stakeholders across the state, including our elected officials and leaders in medicine, to join us in meeting this important need,” said Feinstein.
A Matter of Degrees: DO and MD
The university decided to create a college that grants Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine (D.O.) degrees, as opposed to one that grants Doctor of Medicine (M.D.) degrees because osteopathic medicine — one of the fastest-growing health care professions in the country — is a field with a long tradition of providing care in rural and underserved areas. These are exactly where Colorado needs doctors now.
In addition, a College of Osteopathic Medicine builds on UNC’s existing strengths
and depth in both the sciences and health sciences. UNC is home to nationally ranked
nursing and public health programs as
well as programs in behavioral sciences, biology, chemistry, audiology and speech-language pathology.
While both MDs and DOs undergo four rigorous years of medical school and additional residency training to be eligible to practice medicine in the U.S. DOs are also trained to recognize the interrelated unity among all systems of the body, including an additional 200 hours of study on the musculoskeletal system with hands-on musculoskeletal training.
Explosive Growth Predicted in Osteopathic Medicine
“Over the past three decades, the total number of DOs and osteopathic medical students has more than quadrupled to reach 186,871 in 2023. Currently representing more than 11% of all physicians and 25% of all medical students in the U.S., the osteopathic medical profession is positioned to continue growing exponentially.”
– Source: American Osteopathic Association
“In the 2022-23 academic year, more than 35,000 osteopathic medical students are studying to become osteopathic physicians, an all-time high. This represents a 77% increase in the last decade.”
– Source: American Association of Colleges of Osteopathic Medicine
“As a profession, DOs are more likely to enter into primary care—nearly 57% of DOs vs 28% of MDs.”
– Source: American Medical Association, 2020-21 report
Caption: photo by sofiko14