Since UC Riverside’s medical school debuted in 2013 with the dream of expanding healthcare access in the underserved Inland Empire region, the university has relied on partnerships with area hospitals to provide hands-on training.
“They call it locally a hospital without walls,” state Sen. Richard Roth, D-Riverside, said.
But that arrangement, Roth said, isn’t going to work much longer.
The number of UCR School of Medicine students is projected to swell to 500 over the next few years with construction of a five-level, 90,000-square-foot building featuring lecture halls, classrooms, problem-based learning rooms, study areas and offices. Begun in October, construction of School of Medicine Education Building II is on track to be completed by summer 2023, UCR spokesperson Iqbal Pittalwala wrote in an email.
At the same time, Roth said, there are looming threats to opportunities for medical students to train at Inland hospitals.
In view of those trends, UCR’s medical school needs its own teaching hospital, which would cost about $300 million to build, he said.
Roth lobbied colleagues in the just-completed legislative session to authorize a UCR hospital — somewhere in Riverside County, not necessarily on the campus or even in the city of Riverside — by approving Senate Bill 1199. The bill he co-sponsored with Sen. Rosilicie Ochoa Bogh, R-Yucaipa, easily passed the Senate, 39-0, in late May.
But Roth said he shelved the bill upon learning it did not have backing from the UC president.
“It’s tough to move a $300 million ask without the support of the institution,” he said.
Ryan King, spokesperson for the University of California Office of the President, said via email Friday, Sept. 9, that the office didn’t take a position on SB 1199.
“We recognize the community’s strong desire for a teaching facility in Riverside,” King wrote, mentioning $10 million was allocated in last year’s state budget to begin planning for a UCR hospital.
“UC agrees that additional investment is of vital importance to bring care to those in this medically underserved area,” King wrote. “UCR Health’s clinical services and the campus’s medical training program are important resources for the community, and more capacity is needed for care and for training the next generation of physicians.”
Roth isn’t giving up and said he’ll try again in 2023 to pass legislation to launch construction.
“I am convinced that the governor will take another look at this next year and I am hopeful that we will be able to secure some money,” Roth said. “He understands that we are an underserved area. I look forward to working with him next year.”
UCR officials declined to discuss Roth’s bill or plans for the hospital.
In 2019, Roth and Assembly Members Jose Medina and Sabrina Cervantes, both D-Riverside, helped snare $100 million in state dollars for the School of Medicine Education Building II that is rising on the Riverside campus.
In a statement Friday, Dr. Deborah Deas, vice chancellor for health sciences and Mark and Pam Rubin Dean of the School of Medicine, said the school is grateful for the lawmakers’ support and looks forward to “continuing to work together as we grow to best serve the needs of our medical students.”
It is anticipated that the five-story education building will usher in the biggest expansion since the medical school formed nine years ago. With existing facilities, the school can accommodate 80 students in each class, Pittalwala wrote, and the new building will enable classes to expand by 45 students to 125. With 125 in each class, the program could grow to 500 students overall, he added.
Roth said the growth will put pressure on the university to provide enough slots in area hospitals for training. That pressure comes as some hospitals that partnered with the university are establishing their own residency programs, reducing the number of residency slots available to UCR students, he said.
Most of the UCR-sponsored residency slots are being provided through St. Bernardine Medical Center in San Bernardino, which is part of the Catholic-affiliated hospital group Dignity Health, Roth said. The UC system adopted a policy in July 2021 that bars medical schools in the UC system from partnering with hospitals that restrict some health services available to women and LGBTQ patients, and as a result, he said, the future of the St. Bernardine partnership is likely in jeopardy.
Christina Zicklin, spokesperson for Dignity Health’s Southern California hospitals in Glendale, said by email Friday that “we believe we are fully compliant with the UC Regents policy that was passed.”
St. Bernardine’s residency program has been affiliated with UCR for more than six years, Zicklin said.
“We are very proud of both our program and the strong partnership with UCR,” she wrote.
Since the UCR medical school’s inception, Pittalwala wrote, the university has issued medical degrees to 328 students, including 40 in the inaugural graduating class of 2017 and 69 in the most recent class.
Pittalwala said there are 137 School of Medicine-sponsored resident and fellowship trainees working in family medicine, internal medicine, cardiology, critical care medicine, gastroenterology, psychiatry and addiction medicine. He wrote that approximately 100 of those students train primarily at St. Bernardine Medical Center, while also doing some training at other affiliated hospitals such as Riverside University Health System Medical Center and UCR’s health clinics.
Roth said having its own hospital would not only give UCR control over residency programs, it also would enable the university to generate money to finance medical school programs.
Without a hospital, he said, “this school may face some serious challenges in the future. The need is absolutely critical.”
It is time, too, Roth said, that UCR be given the tools that other UC campuses with medical institutions enjoy.
“No other UC medical school operates without a UC teaching hospital,” he said.