Showing the way: Medical research, education can be shot in the arm for RGV

EDINBURG — A big reason behind the creation of the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley was the ability to tie it to the creation of a school of medicine, and similar to other regions aiming for medical schools, San Antonio served as its northern star.

The question was, other than staying to practice medicine, what opportunities would be available to students if the research aspect of the enterprise takes off in the area.

This year, the UTRGV School of Medicine is accepting its third cohort of medical students, and with that comes additional efforts to support a larger cohort with varying needs.

From faculty to clinical practice and residency opportunities, the success of the students and of the university itself depends on how these resources are cultivated.

“We have three areas we focus on,” UTRGV SoM Dean John Krouse explained. “One is excellence in education. We want to provide an environment where we educate students, a large number from the Valley, where they have outstanding medical education and then stay in our residency programs.”

Currently, about 30 percent of the medical students at UTRGV are from the Valley, and the goal is to reach 50 percent over the next few years as well as increasing the overall size of each class from about 50 students to 100. This could increase the chances of these students wanting to stay to practice in the area, Krouse said.

But a big part of the university’s focus is also in establishing a strong research foundation, which is expected to bring a large economic impact to the entire Valley similar to that of the San Antonio area.

Only a couple hundred miles north of the Valley lies a $37 billion healthcare industry in the heart of San Antonio, full of clinical trial companies, public and private research facilities and manufacturers catering solely to this enterprise.

This, stakeholders say, also opens the door for medical students from different areas to experience a different aspect of medicine.

“It used to be that when you went through residency you used to be taught something about research, which usually amounted to a seminar that taught you how to read a paper,” said Dr. Jason Miller, a psychiatrist practicing and teaching in the San Antonio area. “Now they actually require residents to participate in research of some sort. It doesn’t necessarily have to equal a published work but it forces schools and residencies to create opportunities for people who might be interested.”

This added exposure could be enough to spark interest in those who seek to conduct their own research while they practice.

Miller himself works with Clinical Trials of Texas where they test new drugs or devices before they’re approved to go on the market. But he also teaches at both the University of Texas Health Science Center and University of Incarnate Word.

Now, Miller seeks to create those bridges between the public sector, in this case higher education institutions, private companies and organizations.

“First thing we are working on is bringing those medical students into here, and teaching them what we do,” he said, adding that the goal is for them to mainly see that these places don’t look too different than other clinics, where a big part of what they do is take patient care.

“When I was a medical student, that was a black box that I didn’t know anything about,” Miller added. “So to know that that’s out there and that is accessible is important.”

In a different clinical trial clinic in Shavano Park, two young students have been trained to pretty much run the clinic on their own, if needed.

“I feel like it’s prepared me for graduate-level schooling in the sense that this gives you real-world experience,” said Max Klepcha, 23, as he entered data from patients at Consano Clinical Research. “It’s one thing to just learn about symptoms in a textbook when you are just reading it, and it’s one thing to actually call a patient back and research, get their life history, have them actually describe what’s going on — connect the dots.”

Klepcha is pursuing a medical degree at McGovern Medical School and waiting to transfer to San Antonio. He has been trained alongside fellow student Preston Hale, 21, who is pursuing a Bachelor in Science and Nursing at UT Tyler.

The two are now well-versed in clinical research, and their boss Greg Consano raves about them knowing every aspect of the tedious and highly scrutinized business so well that they could run the entire operation if needed.

“I had no idea that any of this was a thing,” Hale said. “This is much larger than I ever expected. Research, I just thought was in one location and you were there for a few days, but there’s much more to it.”

These clinics test the safety of many medications and healthcare devices on participants sometimes for months at a time. It involves a lot of follow-up visits with patients in which these students have to build rapport, learn patterns and make connections between symptoms and drug usage. And it all has to be perfectly structured and recorded to keep up with federal requirements.

Having access to different research opportunities in and out of the university grounds could lead to a higher pioneering spirit in which some might seek to not only practice medicine within the community, but also test new drugs and educate the community on what else is possible.

Dr. Sarah Williams-Blangero, who directs UTRGV’s diabetes and obesity institute, has seen where such opportunities can lead students.

“As the research grows, of course, this provides all of these training opportunities for students at a huge range of levels,” Williams-Blangero said. “We have an assistant professor from the department of internal medicine training with us right now to add generic components to his work. We have students, post (doctorate) … and that all contributes to building the educational environment of the university.”

Most of the growth in her department has included local students, she added, which will in turn also better the quality of the physicians that will stay and practice in the area.

Through clinical work and research, both students and physicians have a chance of educating the community. Even if the drugs or treatments are not fully successful, they still leave the research with a lot more knowledge and tools to keep their disease under control.

“You impact the world in a different way with research,” Klepcha said. “You are not only treating the people you see, you are also presenting opportunities for people down the road to be able get treated with the work you do in research.”

This story is part of a short series examining the future of health care in the region, and the potential for creating a medical research hub that could create a billion-dollar enterprise not unlike what San Antonio has accomplished.