Investing In Health: UTRGV School of Medicine receives $15M gift

HARLINGEN — The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley announced a $15 million gift yesterday from the Valley Baptist Legacy Foundation, the largest contribution to the School of Medicine yet.

“This is a transformative gift for the School of Medicine,” UTRGV President Guy Bailey said. “Just as we have an internationally prominent diabetes and obesity institute, we think we can do the same thing in neuroscience with this gift and our commitment.”

The grant is intended to establish the UTRGV Institute for Neurosciences, which will be housed at the Regional Academic Health Center in Harlingen. The university will match the foundation’s gift by purchasing state-of-the-art equipment and personnel for the institute.

In total the foundation has contributed about $22 million to UTRGV’s efforts, Bailey said. This particular initiative will be supported by the City of Harlingen and Valley Baptist Hospital.

Randall Baker, executive director for the foundation, said the purpose of this institute completely aligns with the foundation’s core mission and priorities, which is to invest in and serve in partnerships, education and programs that improve and promote health by increasing access.

“It’s long been known that the Valley suffers from a shortage of healthcare professionals, primarily primary care doctors, but even specialists like psychiatrists,” Baker said. “So one of the main purposes of our foundation is to help with education, especially in these areas.”

This grant will be disbursed over a period of five years, Baker said, and the hope is to bring in nationally recognized researchers to develop better health opportunities to the Valley, where the foundation focuses its resources.

UTRGV officials said the plan is for the institute to focus on three main areas, education, multidisciplinary opportunities, and health and prevention programs.

In the case of education, the institute would help develop integrated ambulatory and outpatient care, help merge primary care and behavioral health and provide medical students with learning opportunities such as clerkships in psychiatry, neurology and other research and clinical fellowships.

The multidisciplinary aspect of the institute will encompass other colleges within UTRGV — such as the colleges of engineering, science and health affairs — and will be key in the development of the institute.

“We see this as a UTRGV-wide opportunity to cut across disciplinary lines and look at the patient as a whole and community health as a whole, and take strategic steps to solve some of these health problems,” said Steven Lieberman, interim dean of the UTRGV School of Medicine.

The School of Medicine has already begun some preparations for the institute, Lieberman said, such as coming up with what the research program will be built around and what kind of programs are needed to promote neurological health here in the Valley.

Because neuroscience is a broad area, Lieberman said this will be linked to many efforts and research that are already underway in the area, such as the diabetes and obesity institute.

“It’s studying how the brain works at a microscopic level, it’s studying how different parts of the brain interact with each other, it’s studying how brain activity is related to human behavior and even how human behavior impacts their health,” Lieberman said. “It’s not just neurology and psychiatry, but clinical psychology, other behavioral aspects.”

The grant will also allow the university to attract experts who can in turn delve areas of concern in the Valley that haven’t been explored in depth for lack of expertise.

“We’ll be able to recruit neurology specialists and neuroscience specialists that the valley doesn’t currently have so people will not have to leave the Valley to get world-class subspecialty care for neurologic illnesses,” he said.

Having the Institute of Neurosciences in the area will not only benefit and bring positive attention to Harlingen, said Mayor Christopher Boswell, but to the entire region.

“It is important that we all work together to support these efforts,” Boswell said. “The potential is unlimited in the sense that we’ve never had such research opportunities here at such as advance level in such an important specialty. It’s bound to attract more interest and others that want to be part of what’s being developed here.”

What will the institute do?

Education – Develop capacity for integrated ambulatory/outpatient care, integrate primary care and behavioral health in internal medicine, develop medical student clerkships in psychiatry and neurology and develop research and clinical fellowships in subspecialties.

Multidisciplinary – Develop programs in clinical excellence and personalized medicine, including multidisciplinary research and service lines for specific populations.

Health and prevention programs – Including early detection/early intervention of psychotic disorders, community education and coaching on selected neurologic/behavioral disorders, and implementation of behavioral health in internal medicine and other primary care clinics.