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Community profile: El Paso, TX

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There’s an aura of excitement these days in the halls, offices and classrooms of the Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center at El Paso.  To summarize the reason in a few words, German Hernandez, MD, says, “You don’t get to start a new medical school very often.”

He’s one of a growing group of teaching/practicing physicians who will be ready for classes when the school opens in July with a class of 40 students.

The new Paul L. Foster School of Medicine is actually an addition to the school that has been accepting third- and fourth-year medical students for about 25 years. “Typically,” adds Hernandez, “students have gone first to Texas Tech in Lubbock (the main campus) to get their basic science education. But from there they have split up for their last two years. Some stay in Lubbock, some go to Amarillo and about a third come to El Paso.”  Now
medical students will be able to spend all fo
Kirk Baston, MD, may be even more exuberant about the change. “The school was actually my main reason to come,” he chimes in. “It’s been a very exciting and unique opportunity to be part of a team that’s basically creating a new medical school. The campus is gorgeous, with beautiful buildings and up-to-date resources. If anyone loves to teach, this is one of the best facilities that I’ve ever seen.”

As proof, he cites “an exciting and innovative curriculum that puts students in contact with clinical practitioners and clinical studies from the get-go. But aside from the new buildings and the heavy emphasis on teaching by the physicians (at least 70 percent of one’s professional time is allocated to teaching, with up to 30 percent for patient care), is such state-of-the-art equipment as simulation equipment that I didn’t even know existed.”

Another plus: The school will be based on the Calgary Model. “Traditionally, first- and second-year students don’t see patients,” says Lisa Ruley, the school spokeswoman. “But here they will be attending actor-patients simulating all different situations.” Current plans also cover nine residency programs, with more to come.

Bilingual opportunities

Another serendipity different from most if not all other medical schools: “Because we’re on the border, there are a lot of Spanish-speaking patients. The students will have about a four-week Spanish immersion course before they start their actual medical curriculum.”

The advantages radiate into the community, Baston points out. “Having a school within the city is hopefully going to increase the number of doctors here. What’s interesting is that since I have been here and talking to the general community, when I tell them I’m working at Paul Foster they seem very excited that the school is here.”

They’re excited for good reason. El Paso is the twin city of Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, just across the Rio Grande River. In fact, “The border is just down the street from City Hall, and some people see the two cities as one,” says city spokeswoman Juliet Lozano. As one El Pasoan puts it, “If you make a wrong turn, you end up in Juarez.”

Medical care needs are great, with a combined El Paso/Juarez population of more than 2 million. Many Juarez citizens seek medical care on the U.S. side of the border, and a surging incidence of diabetes and obesity in both cities has created a greater and greater need for physicians. Hernandez and Baston—and more than a few city leaders—hope that some will opt for a congenial life in an even more congenial climate. Some El Pasoans delight in talking about rare occasions when snow might cover the ground in the morning, then melt in the afternoon when the temperature rises into the 60s.

Warm and welcoming

Climate in fact played a key role in attracting Augustine Eleje, MD. Born in Nigeria, Eleje earned bachelor’s degrees in medicine and surgery, interned and practiced there until coming to the U.S. in 1990. New Jersey was his first destination: He completed his residency there in internal medicine and pediatrics, helped run the program until 2003, and was also medical director for a nursing home. But after 16 years in Newark, and more than enough winters in the north, “I started thinking about moving to warmer climates,” he recalls. “I figured Texas would be a good place. Not Houston or Dallas; they’re too big.” But El Paso was the “average size city that I needed, a nice place to raise a family.”

Another consideration: “I needed a place that needed doctors and one where I could get up and running quickly. I like to work, and I like to make money so that the kids can go to college. (Two of his four children are now students at Baylor University.) As a professor, the compensation wasn’t going to cut it.”

In a welcoming gesture, Eleje’s sponsor, Las Palmas Medical Center, one of the city’s six major hospitals, eased him into his new practice by helping with startup costs. In five months, his practice was showing a profit, and, he says, “I could pull my own weight.”

Easy transition

Authorization numbers for Medicare and Medicaid were another story. Even though he’d had the certification in New Jersey, he had to reapply in Texas. The problem, as every peripatetic practitioner knows, was that he could draw no reimbursement until the paper work was finished, but at that point the payments were retroactive. In eight months, he was in the system. Contrasted with his previous experience, the Texas bureaucracy acted with lightning speed. Today, he’s affiliated with four hospitals—Las Palmas, Del Sol Medical Center (now combined as a regional healthcare system and operated by HCA), Providence Memorial Hospital, and Sierra Medical Center (linked as the Sierra providence Health Network under the aegis of Tenet Healthcare).


Eileen Lockwood

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