A foreign medical school is trying to become the first to open a satellite campus in the U.S.
Although the campus' planned location of Casper, Wyo., has no medical school and the state's only medical program is the University of Wyoming in Laramie's shared program with the University of Washington, the move is opposed by some local physicians and some regional and national medical organizations.
"Any medical school-whether in Casper, Wyoming, or anywhere else in the country-needs to provide assurances that the education of its students is comparable to the 125 established medical schools now accredited in the U.S.," the American Medical Association said in a statement issued last month to address Ross University Medical School's announcement it would open a satellite campus in Casper.
Ross wants to start teaching medicine in Casper next spring. The medical school is based in the nation of Dominica in the British West Indies. Robert Ross, a petroleum exporter, founded the school in 1978 at the request of a friend whose son was not accepted by a U.S. medical school.
Total enrollment in the four-year program is about 1,500, with Americans accounting for more than 90%. Ross University would not disclose its annual graduation rate but said some 2,000 students who have earned degrees over the past 20 years are practicing medicine in the U.S.
"We've had a lot of requests from students for a campus in the United States because most are coming from there anyway," said William Thurman, M.D., Ross University's executive dean. "Wyoming is the best bet for us, because there's no medical school there."
Thurman said 70 students are enrolled for classes in Wyoming, which are scheduled to begin next May. The school plans to start classes in converted commercial space in downtown Casper, then move by late 1999 or early 2000 into a 120,000-square-foot building to be constructed just outside of town. Thurman said a construction cost was not available. He added that the land on which Ross University intends to build would have to be annexed by the city for the school to get proper utility hookups. Within a decade, the campus is expected to have more than 1,000 students.
Ross University also needs certification from the Wyoming Department of Education, but critics note that the standards for approval are minimal.
"The standards are just to make sure they physically exist and are not operating a diploma mill out of a post office box," said Wendy Curran, executive director of the Wyoming Medical Society, which opposes Ross' move.
If all goes as planned, Ross University would be the first medical school not accredited by the Liaison Committee on Medical Education-the AMA-sponsored accreditation body for medical schools in the U.S and Canada-operating within the U.S., according to the American Association of Medical Colleges. The school is exempt from such accreditation because its main campus is not based in the U.S.
There are 125 accredited medical schools in the U.S. and 16 in Canada, according to the AMA.
Unlike accredited American schools, Ross University does not require students to take the Medical College Admission Test for admission. Still, Ross University students are eligible for federal loans, and students may perform their pre-graduate clinical rotations in California, New Jersey or New York. The board of medical examiners and education departments in those states have cleared the university's programs.
Ross University said it does not confer degrees unless students pass the three-step battery of exams that the Education Committee for Foreign Medical Graduates requires for practicing medicine in the U.S.
According to the school's Internet Web site, last year 92% of Ross University's students passed the first test, which is required after two years of medical school. The site did not list passing rates for the second and third tests required for U.S. licensing.
"We've heard all the static and dialogue that if you don't go to a U.S. medical school, you're not qualified to practice medicine in the U.S.," Robert Ross said. "The accreditation issue is just baloney."
The satellite campus has concerned the Wyoming and national medical communities.
In an informal poll of the local physician association, the 84-member Natrona County Medical Society, 95% opposed Ross University's presence, according to published reports.
A Casper physician told the Associated Press that by hosting an unaccredited medical school, the region would become a "laughingstock."
The Wyoming Medical Society's Curran also noted that Ross University's presence might cause the University of Wyoming in Laramie to lose state funding for the joint medical program it conducts with the University of Washington in Seattle. Medical students in the program spend their first year in Wyoming, then go to Washington for the remainder.
"It could have a long-term adverse impact," Curran said. "Ross is not asking for state funds, but our economy is not that strong. There is a fear the state could scrap the program if another one is in place."
Curran added that Ross University students could also eventually compete with University of Wyoming students for scarce residency and post-graduate clinical rotation spots in a state that has only 30 hospitals.
While neither the AAMC nor the AMA has formally opposed Ross University's plans, as Curran's organization has done, both have stressed that medical schools in the U.S. should conform to rigorous standards.
Ross University does have the support of the local business community because the satellite campus is expected to create as many as 200 jobs.
However, Casper College was unable to find enough space on its campus for Ross University to conduct classes there.