Mind & Spirit

Medical School Celebrates 40 Years of Excellence


Forty years after its founding, the University of Illinois’ medical college in Rockford is still churning out eager new doctors, and getting a helping hand from volunteer physicians.

Students and professors work together in a lab at the newly expanded University of Illinois College of Medicine at Rockford. Most faculty members are practicing community physicians who volunteer teaching time, primarily for the gratification of training the next generation of doctors. (University of Illinois College of Medicine at Rockford photo)

James Frakes, M.D., M.S., could have chosen many places for his medical studies. But the southern Illinois native chose Rockford, where he graduated in 1976 from the University of Illinois College of Medicine, 1601 Parkview Ave. He was one of 26 students to make up the school’s second graduating class.

Frakes went on to have a very successful career as a physician. Last year, he retired from private practice with Rockford Gastroenterology Associates, Ltd., where he served as managing partner for more than 20 years. He’s past president of the American Society for Gastrointestinal Endoscopy and has been an adviser to Congress, the Health Care Financing Administration and various federal commissions. Frakes has received many awards from the College of Medicine at Rockford, including the Distinguished Alumnus Award.

He credits his success, at least in part, to time spent at the medical school both as a student and professor. “My experiences and memories here have just been wonderful,” he says. “The College of Medicine at Rockford has been an extremely valuable part of my medical professional life.

“The medical school has been important to the community as well. I think some people wondered if relying so heavily on volunteer faculty could be workable. But over the years, the concept has proven to be viable, and a very cost-effective way of giving students a great education. All three Rockford hospitals are excellent, and have become even better over time, because of the presence of medical students. Many of the students who trained here came back to practice in Rockford. The College of Medicine has enhanced the quality of medical care in the community.”

Founded in 1971 as a regional medical program for the University of Illinois, the College of Medicine celebrates its 40th anniversary this year. The Rockford campus is one of four University of Illinois campuses in the state; the others are located in Chicago, Peoria and Urbana-Champaign. The program offers education to second-, third- and fourth-year medical students, who spend their first year at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. In addition to medicine, the campus has graduate programs in pharmacy, nursing and public health, and offers a master’s in medical biotechnology.

The college is affiliated with Rockford’s three hospitals and also provides medical care to the general public. It has trained more than 1,300 physicians, with more than 300 Rockford graduates practicing in Illinois. Last year, students were matched to 13 different residency specialties in 18 states. The faculty has 750 members, 60 full-time in specialties from biomedical sciences to surgery and pediatrics. Most of the faculty members are community physicians who work in private group practices, and who teach primarily for the gratification of training the next generation of doctors.

“We’re a community-based medical school,” says Martin Lipsky, M.D., regional dean for the College of Medicine. “The backbone of our clinical teaching programs is community physicians who donate their time. Many physicians feel part of their commitment is to give back.”

Dr. Glenn Netto is one such physician. A Rockford native who graduated from Rockford West High School and Rockford College, before graduating from the College of Medicine in 1980, he returned after his residency, because of the medical school.

“I love to teach,” Netto says. “And we’re using the community to train our students. As a medical student, I can still remember the opportunity I had to interact with patients, not only in the hospitals, but in the physician’s office. Under the watchful eye of our teaching physicians, we had a tremendous amount of clinical responsibility, at a rather young stage of our careers. The students here in this community-based medical school have more of a one-on-one relationship with their teaching physicians than their counterparts in a traditional academic medical center.”

The medical school combines academics with an extended clinical experience. Students interact with patients in one of three university primary care clinics, starting in their second year. By the fourth year, each student is responsible for the care of 75 to 100 local families.

“We’ve graduated more family practice physicians than any other school in Illinois, and it shows in the Rockford area,” says Joel Cowen, M.A., a retired assistant dean. “While there’s a national shortage of primary care physicians, our region does well, compared to others with primary care, because of the College of Medicine.”

Through innovative research, the faculty at the College of Medicine has made significant contributions to the practice of medicine, from studies on cancer and neuroendocrinology in the department of biomedical sciences, to investigations of community-based health initiatives by the National Center for Rural Health Professions (NCRHP).

The Rockford Municipal Tuberculosis Sanitarium opened on the site in 1916, one of hundreds nationwide designed to isolate patients and slow the spread of the disease.

In 1993, the Rural Medical Education (RMED) program began training physicians for underserved rural areas. Part of the NCRHP, it’s one of the most successful programs of its type in the United States. The school often gets requests from other schools and hospitals for advice on developing similar programs, and has multiple international visitors from China, Mexico, Ireland and Thailand, who seek guidance on rural medicine training.

“Everyone deserves good healthcare, and there are disparities in healthcare,” says Lipsky. “The biggest disparities take place in rural and urban settings.”

The College of Medicine also serves the general public with clinics throughout northern Illinois. The medical school has primary care clinics in Belvidere, Mt. Morris and Rockton; a Women’s and Children’s Health Center on McFarland Road in Rockford; the L.P. Johnson Family Health Center at Ninth and State streets in Rockford; and a psychiatry clinic at Parkview Avenue in Rockford.

The school’s medical library, located at Parkview, is part of the University of Illinois library system, with access to the full electronic resources of the University. It’s open to the public and has research librarians and staff who can assist with searches for both medical and non-medical-related information.

“Forty years is a huge milestone,” says Pam Fox, a local attorney and chair of the college’s Dean’s Council. “The College of Medicine has taken off with the pharmacy program, MBA-type programs, and many other programs that will make a huge difference in the future of Rockford.”

The school’s location at 1601 Parkview Avenue in Rockford has come a long way since it served as a tuberculosis sanitarium, from 1916 until the late 1960s.

The college was established in 1971, when a group of community physicians encouraged leaders at the University of Illinois to develop a medical school at the former sanitarium. The group promised that community physicians and local hospitals would commit time, energy and resources to providing the clinical education.

Initially hired to do an impact study, Cowen was the third staff member to come onboard after the medical school opened. He soon led the Health Systems Research unit and became well-known throughout the region for his expertise on demographic and social trends. He organized hundreds of studies, helping organizations to analyze community needs in order to implement programs.

The medical school was well-accepted by the community when it opened four decades ago, and it remains that way today, says Cowen. “It was unusual, at the time, for a community the size of Rockford to not have a medical education program,” he says. “Most communities had some resident activity in local hospitals. In Rockford, the need for graduate professional education is so great. We don’t have a major university here, so the medical school is certainly a significant asset on which we can build our educational base. We’ve come a long way. Today, there isn’t any community where medical students gain as much experience working with patients as they do in Rockford.”

The College of Medicine has had five deans. The first was Dr. Robert Evans, followed by Drs. Craig Booher (interim); Clifford Grulee, Jr.; Bernard P. Salafsky; and Lipsky.

“They all did a good job shepherding the school through different times,” says Frakes. “The early deans got the school started and made things work. Later, Drs. Salafsky and Lipsky developed the school on more of a national scale. Dr. Lipsky has really integrated the school into the University of Illinois system well. The relationship with Chicago is better than at any time I can remember.”

Still, there were financial concerns, especially in the early years, according to the book, A New Generation of Physicians, written by Stanley Olson, M.D., who served as a volunteer assistant to the dean. Persistent underfunding of the school by the state increased pressure on the College of Medicine to find new ways to increase income from the delivery of clinical services.

A $26 million building expansion, completed in the summer of 2008, has allowed the college to expand its programs.

“We had some rocky times,” says Cowen. “There was significant discussion about whether the school should close. It was an unusual community-based model of education to begin with. Some people in medical education might have said you can’t succeed using community physicians, not having a university hospital, focusing on primary care in a world in which medicine was becoming specialized. The success of that model is also an achievement. The school has overcome those bumps in the road.”

That’s evident when one pulls up to the front door of the college. The college broke ground on a state-of-the-art, $26-million expansion project in summer 2008. The College of Medicine campus is home to the new University of Illinois Health Sciences Campus at Rockford. It houses the NCRHP, a new regional college of pharmacy, the campus’ college of medicine, the college of nursing and the master’s in medical biotechnology program.

The 58,000-square-foot expansion includes a tiered, 100-seat classroom; a 200-seat auditorium for lectures, interactive classes, community meetings or seminars; a standardized patient suite for training healthcare professionals; a 6,500-square-foot laboratory suite; new space for the Crawford Library, with a commons area; a two-story atrium; and a first-floor lobby.

“We’ve made the College of Medicine more than a medical school campus – it’s a health profession campus that includes pharmacy, nursing and graduate training in biomedical research,” Lipsky says. “It’s brought us into the 21st century. When students interview here, they see our facility, and it begins to attract the best and the brightest. It’s allowed us to grow and expand nursing and pharmacy programs.”

“It’s been a long time coming,” says Dr. David Bartels, vice dean of the College of Pharmacy at Rockford, a faculty member for 33 years. “We’ve partnered with the National Center for Rural Health Professions to develop a rural pharmacy program. We have pharmacy students and medical students training side by side, developing a model that I think will be unique for the country. Hopefully, we can develop a whole new paradigm for medical treatment in rural Illinois.”

When Lipsky was hired away from Northwestern University, in Evanston, Ill., seven years ago, one of his goals as dean was to increase the school’s visibility in the community. He likes telling the story about the time he came to town to interview for his current position.

“I stopped at a gas station to ask for directions and one of the attendants had never heard of the school,” he says, laughing.

Lipsky has since beefed up the school’s marketing and public relations efforts. Staff members are more accessible to the media and are available to speak on numerous topics, from health care industry issues and medical education, to various diseases, biomedical and clinical research topics.

“Martin has been a huge asset,” says Fox. “He’s become involved with all three healthcare systems. We’ve seen an increase in the number of programs, lectures and presentations. Martin is a very smart doctor, and he has what a dean needs. He has the skills to bring people together and make things happen.”

The Dean’s Council functions as the advisory board to the college, using the members’ professional and personal involvements to establish and maintain relationships with regional leaders, philanthropic agencies and other institutions throughout northern Illinois. Fifteen community members serve on the Council. Fox has served on the Dean’s Council for nine years and chaired it for the past four. Fox has also served on the Rockford Health System Board of Directors for 20 years.

“The College of Medicine is vital to the community,” she says. “Every education possibility that local citizens have within the community’s borders is important.”

Cowen agrees. “There’s a great deal of potential between the medical school and the pharmacy school,” he says. “The school is much more significant when you combine 150 medical students with a couple of hundred pharmacy students. There are many areas where the schools, in addition to the medical biotechnology program, are complementary. The school is carving out a niche now in that area. We are going to see a resurgence in research in pharmacy, medicine and biotechnology.”

In the coming 40 years, Lipsky says, the college will place more emphasis on interprofessional education.

“Care will be more team-oriented,” he says. “Our vision is to train all the health professionals to work together well, so we can be more effective. One-to-one relationships will always be a critical element of care, but more and more, we will see teams of health professionals working together to care for a patient.”

Even with a promising future, challenges lie ahead.

“The biggest challenge we have in the future is to recruit and retain the best quality faculty,” says Lipsky. “We have to find physicians who have the same commitment to the school as did the founding fathers who made this the superior school it has become today.” ❚

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