Perhaps the brightest spot in Louisiana's struggling healthcare infrastructure one year after Hurricane Katrina is the factor that could have the greatest influence on the system's future: the region's medical school and clinical training programs.
Though hit hard and disrupted by the hurricane and subsequent flooding last August, Louisiana State University School of Medicine in New Orleans and Tulane University School of Medicine's programs both had strong numbers of applicants for the coming school year. "Our medical school has had no reduction in the number of applicants," said Larry Hollier, chancellor of LSU Health Sciences Center and dean of the medical school. "We filled all of our positions -- there are 175, and they (started) Thursday, Aug. 10."
Tulane retained 98% of its students last year and received 7,200 applications to fill between 150 and 160 slots for the new school year, said Paul Whelton, senior vice president for health sciences and dean of the school of medicine. Whelton added that this year the medical school, which accepts about one-third of students who are nonscience majors but who have strong leadership skills, took a stronger interest in applicants committed to rebuilding the state.
In addition, Ochsner Health System's Graduate Medical Education program achieved a complete match of 52 residency positions in its clinical training program this year, an increase from 47 a year ago. Ochsner also doubled the number of its clinical rotations for third- and fourth-year medical students at Tulane and LSU from 450 to 900.
"I think our success is attributable to the fact that our facilities didn't suffer the devastating destruction that the schools did, so our programs are the same or stronger than before," said William Pinsky, executive vice president and chief academic officer for Ochsner. "And there was some amount of adventure (for those who) saw this as a community going through a healthcare redesign."
The news from Ochsner, LSU and Tulane is notable given the circumstances that surrounded these institutions in the past year. After the storm, LSU was forced to move all six of its schools -- medical, dentistry, nursing, allied health, public health and graduate studies -- to Baton Rouge. It also sought creative alternatives for teaching space, such as a nearby movie theater where nurses took courses in the morning hours so that classes could resume, Hollier said. The medical school lost about 10% of its faculty, as well as seven of its major teaching hospitals: the Veterans Affairs Hospital, University, Charity, Memorial, Lindy Boggs, Touro and Kenner Regional. Of those, Touro and Kenner have reopened. By January, all of the schools had returned to New Orleans except the dentistry program.
Tulane, which lost one-third of its full-time faculty and staff and does not expect to operate in the black until 2008, had to "work hard" on the clinical side, Whelton said. "Charity is not functioning, the VA has no inpatient presence at this time, and Tulane provided about 75% of its services."
Earlier this year, LSU and the Veterans Affairs Department said they agreed to build a $1.26 billion joint medical complex on 37 acres in downtown New Orleans to replace Katrina-damaged facilities. Construction on the complex is scheduled to begin in the fall of 2008.
As a new school year begins and residents enter the field, there seems to be a consensus that Katrina could serve as a catalyst to overhaul Louisiana's battered healthcare infrastructure.
"We can use this as a stimulus to redesign our healthcare system," LSU's Hollier said. "What I'm hoping we get is a new method of insuring, financing or underwriting healthcare for the uninsured."