Health-Care in El Paso, TX

Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center at El Paso, TX
Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center at El Paso, TX

The first medical school on the U.S.-Mexico border is adding clinical and research heft to a burgeoning life sciences economy already distinguished for producing FDA-registered medical devices and collaborating across disciplinary and geographic lines.

The Paul L. Foster School of Medicine at El Paso’s Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center accepted 40 first-year students in July 2009. The institution, the first medical school to receive accreditation in the last 25 years, could have a $10 billion impact on the El Paso economy, according to University of Texas at El Paso researchers, from construction jobs to startup spin-offs and high-paying faculty and research posts.

Life sciences already have a good foothold in the Rio Grande Region. A 2009 study found the region produced more than 300 FDA-registered medical devices in 16 specialties. The presence of biotech firms, from small startups to Johnson & Johnson, one of New Mexico’s largest private employers, helps stabilize the economy, says Shannon Sheehan, president of the New Mexico Biotechnology & Biomedical Association.

“It is steady here,” says Sheehan, an expert in enzymology, microbiology and technology transfer. “We don’t go boom, we don’t go bust.”

Rudy Pina has watched the industry evolve in the 20 years since he started Dynatec Labs, an El Paso-based company that tests medical devices prior to FDA approval and works with manufacturers to help them meet the agency’s labeling and other standards after.

“It has become extremely more sophisticated,” Pina says. “The testing we saw initially was stainless steel stints, trocars and hemostats. Now, we see sophisticated plastics and nonwoven materials.”

Improving the lifespan of implants, such as knee replacements, is a big push, too, as is making any instrument or device as minimally invasive as possible, he says.

“The buzz in health care and entrepreneurial growth is talked about in all circles,” Pina says.

Fueling the buzz is the nation’s newest medical school. At least 10 years in the making and a dream for decades longer, the Foster School of Medicine is a cutting-edge institution out of the gate.

The academic program is arranged to promote learning and cooperation across disciplines; students start working with regional clinics in their first year, gaining immediate hands-on experience; and border demographics give clinicians and researchers access to population groups that are changing the face of U.S. medicine.

“We think the demographic of Hispanics will lead everybody to focus on issues we address,” says Dr. Jose Manuel de la Rosa, the school’s first dean. “Our timing was perfect.”

The El Paso campus is not new to medical education—the Medical Center has handled clinical training for third- and fourth-year medical students from Lubbock, 335 miles away. In El Paso, the first-year class will grow to 60 in 2010 as the school progresses to a stand-alone entity with a student body of 400.

For de la Rosa, the new medical school literally hits home. He grew up three blocks away, enrolled in 1990 at the Texas Tech medical school in Lubbock, did his clinical work and residency in El Paso and stayed on as a young faculty member.

He’s never left, and he may soon have some company. The Foster School of Medicine received nearly 2,700 applications for the initial 40 first-year spots. Nine of the new students are El Paso area natives; all of the new students have interests in border health.

“There is a tremendous shortage of physicians all along the border,” de la Rosa says. “We have 120 to 140 doctors per 100,000 residents, which is far below national and state numbers. We are last among the last. It is our mission to plug that hole.”

"Our timing was perfect.”

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