Opportunities to mark medical education "firsts" might be dwindling within U.S. borders, but international markets still offer plenty of new frontiers.
For Weill Cornell Medical College in New York City, the decision to develop a new medical school overseas is breaking new ground in many ways, all of them involving the establishment of Weill Cornell Medical College in Qatar, a tiny country in the Middle East.
The new school, which is slated to open its six-year program in September 2002 with a class of about 50 students, will offer a complete medical curriculum leading to a prestigious Cornell University medical degree. Through the unusual arrangement, Cornell will establish and manage a branch of its own medical school in a foreign country, staff it with its own faculty and operate it according to its own academic standards and principles. Cornell faculty based in New York will be recruited for voluntary assignments in Qatar for varying lengths of time, supplemented as needed by faculty from other U.S. and European medical schools who qualify for Cornell appointments. Administrative staff will be recruited in both New York and Qatar.
The Cornell branch will be the Islamic country's first medical school. It also will be the first coeducational higher education program there. Cornell officials say the new medical school should help balance the movement of foreign medical students between the U.S. and abroad, bucking the trend in which many foreign medical students come to the U.S. for their residencies and stay in America to practice. Cornell is committed to making sure up to 70% of its student body is Qatari, and it believes most of those students will stay in Qatar.
"This is one of our own universities, so we anticipate that the quality of graduates will be higher than the local standard," says Daniel Alonso, M.D., Cornell's inaugural dean of the Weill Cornell Medical College in Qatar. "That eventually will have a tremendous impact on the healthcare of the country and the region because these people will be more likely to stay there and work than to come to America."
Alonso, 64, a native of Argentina, came to the U.S. to finish his medical training and ended up staying. He obtained his medical degree at the Universidad Nacional de Cuyo in Mendoza before arriving at Cornell in 1964 for a residency in pathology. He has remained at Cornell since and most recently was senior associate dean for academic affairs before he was named dean of the Qatar campus in January.
The idea of a Cornell branch in Qatar first sprouted in the spring of 1999 when U.S. Rep. Sue Kelly (R-N.Y.) visited Qatar, an oil-rich Persian Gulf country slightly smaller than the state of Connecticut. Kelly made the trip at the invitation of the emir, Sheikh Hamad bin Kalifa Al Thani, to observe municipal elections in which women were allowed to vote and run for office for the first time in the country's history. That led to a visit with the emir's wife, Sheikha Mozah Nasser Al-Misnad, chairwoman of the Qatar Foundation for Education, Science and Community Development. The emir's wife told Kelly of her interest in developing a medical school and asked for suggestions as to which American universities might be interested in undertaking the project.
Kelly's visit captured the interest of Antonio Gotto Jr., M.D., dean of the Weill Cornell Medical College. International healthcare and education were already high on Gotto's priority list. Soon after his arrival at Cornell in 1997, he established an office of international healthcare in partnership with 2,346-bed New York-Presbyterian Hospital as part of an effort to establish his priorities.
Cornell is establishing the school in collaboration with the Qatar Foundation for Education, Science and Community Development, a private foundation organized by the emir. The foundation is paying full freight, bearing the entire cost of the medical school facility and the operating budget, including support services such as maintenance and food service. Operating costs for the first 10 years are projected at $750 million.
Cornell officials say the partnership is consistent with current trends in globalization, giving the medical school an important opportunity to expand its international academic programs into the Middle East. Meanwhile, the foundation envisions the medical college as the cornerstone of an "education city" that is planned for Qatar's capital, Doha.
Alonso says he is especially relishing the job of helping to design a new medical school building. Students will train clinically at the Hamad Medical Corp., a government organization that operates a sophisticated healthcare system and includes 900-bed Hamad General Hospital and a network of 24 primary clinics.
But Alonso says there also are preliminary proposals to build a university hospital next to the medical school.
"Some people have said this is `educational diplomacy,"' Alonso says. "We are exporting something we do very well."