BILLINGS — State and local officials, along with Rocky Vista University leadership, ceremoniously broke ground on the Montana College of Osteopathic Medicine in Billings on Monday afternoon.
The public also got a first look at new concept art, depicting what will become the first medical school with a dedicated campus in the state.
"We all know that Montana, like many states, is suffering from a shortage of physicians and the majority of counties are facing primary care shortages. It is our hope that through partnerships within the region and by making medical education more accessible to Montana residents, that we can make a positive impact on this physician shortage," said David Forstein, DO, president of Rocky Vista University.
Once complete in late 2022, the 12-acre four-year medical school campus will have a 135,000 square foot building. School leaders expect it will host its first class of 80 students in the summer of 2023, with plans to ramp up the class size to 160 students by 2025.
Once fully operational in 2027, the school will, directly and indirectly, support 304 jobs in the region and generate $67 million annually, according to Allison Corbin, who works for Big Sky Economic Development Authority.
Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte told groundbreaking ceremony attendees that the new school will help close the gap in the state's physician shortage. Gianforte said Montana has one of the oldest populations in the country and the state ranks 30th among the nation for physicians per capita.
“More students completing medical education here in Montana offers us the greatest chance of alleviating our primary care shortage and improving our state’s health outlook. As students eventually come here to learn, train and graduate, we’ll have more doctors ready to serve more Montanans," Gianforte said.
The Billings medical school will make a total of three ran by Rocky Vista University. The organization's first school opened in 2006 in Parker, Colorado and the second is located near St. George, Utah.
David Park, DO — vice president of Rocky Vista University — will serve as the founding dean of the Montana College of Osteopathic Medicine. He's worked for the past 12 years as an osteopathic family doctor and recently moved to Billings with his wife a few weeks ago.
"We are already being really active and wanting to serve the community. I see great things happening here in Billings and this will change the landscape of Billings forever," Park said.
Park described the education track for prospective medical students at the new school. They would receive a bachelor's degree elsewhere, then apply and hopefully be accepted to the Montana College of Osteopathic Medicine. Then the students would spend two years in classes on campus, followed by two years of clinical education in-person at a hospital in the region.
Upon graduation, the student will have a degree in osteopathic medicine.
Park explained how an osteopathic doctor differs from a medical doctor. An osteopathic physician is licensed to do all of the same things as a medical doctor, but there's a different approach in osteopathic medicine.
"We believe that the body and structure are reciprocally interrelated. And we believe that the body has an inherent capability of healing itself and self-regulation. Based on those three tenants of osteopathic philosophy, we will treat our patients. That's what students will get when they graduate, they will get a DO degree.
A group of 51 doctors from across the state signed an op-ed, published in May by Lee Enterprises, saying now was not the time for a new medical school. In the letter, the physicians said while there is a need for more medical students, there is a greater need for more staff in the clinical education field to provide hands-on experience to the medical students.
Click here to read the opinion editorial.
Park said Rocky Vista staff will work to form new partnerships with the local medical education community to find a place for the school's students in the field.
"We understand the concern about limited rotation opportunities right now, but we believe that with collaborative partnerships and strategic planning that we will be able to train a lot of our students here in Montana in the future," Park said.