One of Arizona's critical health-care issues is a growing shortage of medical doctors in the state, and the University of Arizona College of Medicine's growing enrollment is a key part of the solution.
Current enrollment at the UA College of Medicine – Phoenix campus is 282. Significantly, it also attracts non-traditional students from the Phoenix metropolitan area, students who might not otherwise be able to attend medical school and are considered more likely to stay in Arizona.
Alix Hopp, Ken Johnson and Aaron Klassen are students at the UA College of Medicine – Phoenix who have left previous careers behind to focus on pursuing medical degrees.
Hopp, a former software engineer, found that she wanted something different after spending demanding days trying to meet the needs of the ever-changing technology world.
Johnson, a former mechanic who said he "loves to diagnose and fix things," changed his career path after his youngest son received a heart transplant.
Klassen was always interested in going to medical school, but wanted to have more real-world experience first, as a police officer with the Tucson Police Department.
All three believe their former careers are an advantage in medical school, and in their futures as physicians.
"The one thing that older people have regardless of their career is a work ethic. I think they can underestimate what they already bring to the table," Johnson said.
Targeting non-traditional students in particular is part of the college's overall goal to address the doctor shortage in Arizona, a problem that places the state 43rd in the nation with just 68 primary care physicians per 100,000 people.
The national average for primary care physicians sits at 80 per 100,000, so Arizona would need to add 2,475 more physicians to meet that. Overall, Arizona has 220 physicians per 100,000 people. Nationwide, that number is 258 per 100,000.
Increasing the number of medical students is essential to addressing the doctor shortage in Arizona. Starting with a class of 24 students in 2007, the UA College of Medicine – Phoenix has now reached a class size of 80 per year on its way to 120 per class by the end of the decade. Along with the UA College of Medicine – Tucson, the state will see more than 200 new physicians each year – making a real impact on the shortage.
This continued increase in class sizes means the medical field will start seeing more physicians like Johnson, Klassen and Hopp.
Hopp was attracted to the college because of the enthusiasm of everyone on campus.
She lost her father to cancer at age 16, something that first placed a medical career on the map for her, she said.
"Part of it was just wanting to understand," she said. "There was a lot that was very unknown and scary to me. I felt that I wanted to understand what was happening, and I wanted to help. That turned into drive for me."
Johnson, the mechanic, had a similar experience that led to his desire to help others. His son received a heart transplant at just 8 weeks old. The transplant was done at St. Joseph's Hospital and Medical Center, and was only the sixth transplant done by that care team at the time. The care and attention of the doctors at the hospital prompted Johnson to change the course of his life.
"We were in the ICU quite a bit and I realized how good I felt when the doctors would come in, and how much trust they had earned from me," Johnson said of the care team. "They had become so important in my own life."
Klassen believes that his prior experience as a police officer has not only made him a better medical student but might also make him a better physician.
"It's given me confidence in my leadership abilities," he said. "A lot of police officers will find that you have to learn how to take control of any situation which might involve a large number of people who are very upset. That's a skill in communicating with people and it's helpful. I'm able to truly listen to what someone is asking for, what they need, and figure out what they don't want to say."
Johnson said he hopes these success stories will encourage other non-traditional students to pursue a career in medicine.
"I hopefully will serve as an example that medical school is doable for older students," he said. "Don't listen to the people who tell you that you can't. I think older people are underestimating how much they already know."
Hopp offered similar advice.
"The No. 1 question non-traditional students have is how medical school will affect their families," she said. "They shouldn't be discouraged by this. It's definitely not impossible, and families are very supportive. They keep you balanced."