Kaiser Permanente to open a medical school in SoCal

Kaiser Permanente plans to open a school of medicine in Southern California by 2019.
Kaiser Permanente plans to open a school of medicine in Southern California by 2019.
Ted Eytan via Flickr

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Kaiser Permanente is taking the unusual step of opening its own medical school. The health insurance giant announced Thursday that it plans to open a campus in Southern California in 2019. It has not yet decided on a site.

The Kaiser Permanente School of Medicine will prepare students to work in a changing health care system, says Dr. Edward Ellison, executive medical director of the Southern California Permanente Medical Group and an executive sponsor of the medical school.

Kaiser, an HMO, relies heavily on a coordinated team approach to patient care. It owns 38 hospitals and hundreds of clinics and has thousands of doctors on its payroll in eight states and the District of Columbia.  Nearly 80 percent of Kaiser's more than 10 million members are in California.

Students at the medical school will be trained to work in Kaiser's system of care, where, "at every touch point with the system, [patients] are getting the type of support, encouragement, education that they need," Ellison says.

But, he emphasized, "it's not about teaching an HMO model of care, it's about teaching evidence-based medicine focused on outcomes."

Medical students will be trained to provide safe, high-quality care using technologies such as telemedicine, Ellison says. Kaiser claims to have one of the largest electronic health systems in the world.

The school will prepare students to practice community-focused and patient-centered medicine, acting as both leaders and team players, he says.

Noting that population shifts have created "more diverse communities, which require greater cultural competency and understanding," Kaiser says in a statement that it will equip its students with "advanced skills ... tailored to specific populations."

Kaiser is known for using its integrated care model to provide cost-effective care. But Jamie Court, president of Consumer Watchdog, worries medical students will be instructed to provide cost-efficient care at the expense of individual patients' needs.

"My initial reaction was, 'goodbye medicine,'" Court says. "This is a company that has really cut corners and pioneered triage techniques that undermine the traditional tenets of the doctor-patient relationship."

Ellison responds that while accessible, affordable care is important at Kaiser, "our greatest commitment is to quality," adding, "we believe that caring for patients in a coordinated, integrated model allows us to provide the highest quality of care at the most affordable cost."

State regulators fined Kaiser $4 million last year over delays in providing treatment to mental health patients. But in October, the California Office of the Patient Advocate rated Kaiser as the best of the state's 10 HMOs.

The first class of Kaiser's new medical school will probably include about 45 medical students, Ellison says. He expects some – but not all – of the graduates to end up working in the Kaiser system, adding, "we want to provide resources to the community and to geographies outside of California."

More than 600 new doctors are completing their residency programs at Kaiser facilities, and several thousand more from dozens of affiliated programs complete a portion of their training there each year, according to the company statement.

The development of the medical school should not impact Kaiser members' health premiums, Ellison says.