McALLEN, November 20 - Dr. Leonel Vela said last week that the recruitment of two nationally acclaimed psychiatrists to head a new residency program in Harlingen was the proudest day of his 14 years at the Regional Academic Health Center.
On Tuesday, Vela said he was proud also to see the McAllen Family Medicine Residency Program solidified under a new operational agreement. Boosting residency slots at hospitals and clinics up and down the Rio Grande Valley is vital if the region’s planned medical school is to flourish, he said.
“I am looking forward to seeing the day when a child of the Rio Grande Valley goes through kindergarten, public education, university, gets pre-medical education at our great new university and then goes on to medical school to become a doctor, all the time staying here in the Valley. Then, that doctor stays here and saves lives. It is an incredible option that has never been available before,” Vela told the Guardian, in an exclusive interview on Tuesday.
Tuesday’s announcement saw McAllen Medical Center, Valley Care Clinics, and UT Health Science Center-San Antonio team up to take over the McAllen Family Medicine Residency Program. The program is the oldest of its kind in the Valley and has graduated 186 family medicine doctors since 1979. It was previously operated and funded by the Physicians Education Foundation.
Currently, there are 18 residents in the McAllen program. The new affiliation agreement hints that this number could be expanded. Effective Oct. 1, the agreement establishes the “framework for a comprehensive relationship including the existing Family Medicine Residency Program… and potential development of additional programs to achieve mutual goals in the areas of medical education, research and clinical care.”
Dr. Vela, dean of the RAHC, said what impresses him most about the McAllen program is the fact that 60 out of the 186 doctors have stayed in the McAllen area.
“As the announcement was being made I was thinking of the tens of thousands of patients and families whose lives have touched over the years by those 60 doctors. The number of lives that have been saved, the number of lives made better. It is a multiplier effect. And that just one residency program,” Vela said.
Vela said the McAllen residency program has “made its mark” and predicted even greater things in the future.
“This new partnership is going to solidify the program. The best thing we heard is what it is going to do in improving and transforming health status here in the community and around the Valley. It is a proud day and a historical day. It (the McAllen program) is getting ready to catapult itself to a new level of care, a new level of training, education, and research.”
Meanwhile, over in Harlingen, nationally known psychiatrists Rajesh Tampi and Marian Moca have started work this fall as founding directors of psychiatry graduate medical education at the RAHC. Dr. Tampi is director of the Adult Psychiatry Residency Training Program, and Dr. Moca is director of the Child and Adolescent Residency Training Program. Both were previously at Yale University. The residency program is being developed by UT Health Science Center-San Antonio with help from Valley Baptist Medical Center in Harlingen.
“To be able to recruit not one but two program directors of this caliber is amazing. You have seen their bios. Dr. Tampi and Dr. Moca are of the highest caliber, they are nationally recognized in their fields and they come with such enthusiasm, being completely impressed by the community, by the potential partnerships. They have told me they love the Valley. They love the culture, the Mexican food. The Valley has embraced them. They have embraced the Valley. We can only look forward to great, great success,” Vela said.
Tampi was associate clinical professor of psychiatry at Yale University School of Medicine. He was also director of Masonic Care Behavioral Health, a geriatric care facility affiliated with the Yale medical school. He completed his adult psychiatry residency training at the University of Vermont and a geriatric psychiatry fellowship at Yale.
Moca was director of Hartford Behavioral Health, a mental health clinic affiliated with the University of Connecticut School of Medicine, and created and directed the UConn Health Center’s Public School Consultation Service. In addition, he was a clinical instructor of child psychiatry at the Yale Child Study Center and engaged in educational activities with other child psychiatry training programs in Connecticut. Moca is the only fellowship-trained, board-certified child and adolescent psychiatrist in Cameron County.
“The Dr. Tampi and Dr. Moca will be the key professionals in the development of the psychiatric residency program. They are integral to its success, to developing the components, the faculty, the curriculum, and preparing this residency for accreditation,” Vela said.
Vela pointed out that the Valley has a disproportionately low number of psychiatrists. “It is half or less of the state average and when you look at the national level it is even worse. We have a population here that has a problem accessing healthcare, particularly psychiatric services. With this residency program we will be training the next generation of psychiatrists who will be staying here and practicing,” he said.
In particular, Vela said he is pleased that the medical students in the psychiatric residency program will be learning all about the nuances of health care along the border. “In their training, they will get to understand the other determinants of health in relation to mental issues, the social, the cultural, issues related to linguistics. They are being trained in an environment here to be uniquely equipped, uniquely prepared to address the needs of the population here in the Valley. They will be trained in a way to be excellent psychiatrists in the community here,” Vela said.
Dr. Kenneth Shine advises the UT System on health care issues and has been helping develop residency programs in the Valley for the past three years. Shine the new psychiatry residency program is part of an integrated effort to bring physicians in a whole variety of specialties to the Valley.
“Mental health is a particularly demanding area, but we are going to have to have more people in surgery, more people in internal medicine; more people in a variety of other specialties. This is needed with the growth of the population, the aging of the population,” Shine said.
“In fact, if you look at hands on physicians, the national average is 240 per 100,000, in Texas it is 180 per 100,000, and in South Texas it is 110 hands on physicians. We have a substantial overall shortage of physicians in South Texas.”
Shine also pointed out that without high quality residency programs, a medical school cannot be accredited. “For one thing, the quality of the medical student's education depends on having high quality residency programs. For another, the major function will be to entice physicians to practice here. All the evidence shows physicians tend to practice where they do their residency. In Texas 80 to 85 percent of medical students who train in the state will practice in the state. For UT students, 60 to 65 percent will practice in the immediate area.”
Dr. Vela agreed. He said that while the RAHC had helped educate over a 1,000 medical students in its 14 years of existence, it has not, previously, been able to provide the broad spectrum of graduate, medical education training needed. He said this will change when the RAHC morphs into a four-year medical school.
“We have talked about transforming the healthcare status of the Valley. When we bring professionals of the caliber of Dr. Tampi and Dr. Moca to establish the residencies, to train the next generation of professional psychiatrists, surgeons, the residents stay here. They provide services in arguably one of the most medically underserved areas in the country. These residents will in turn become the teachers and faculty of tomorrow. What we are doing today is planting a seed that will blossom many, many, trees into the future.”