California Health Sciences University

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The people of Clovis continue to watch a brand new, innovative university, dedicated to the education of healthcare professionals, emerge, grow and thrive.

California Health Sciences University (CHSU) was founded in 2012 as a privately-funded university. The College of Pharmacy opened first – in fall 2014 – because the need seemed to be the greatest.

In fact, representatives of the pharmacy industry – CVS, Walgreens, independents and even the hospitals – reportedly approached them when they heard a group was planning to open a university to train health care practitioners and literally said, “we need your students.” Apparently, they struggle with hiring pharmacists in the valley and the turnover is very high. They didn’t want this issue to impact the level of care.

So, the College of Pharmacy has been holding classes at an interim campus on North Clovis Avenue. It features a 32,000-square-foot building and a 17,000-square-foot building across the street from each other. Approximately 265 students (62 percent of whom are from the valley) are currently enrolled. The first group of pharmacists is due to graduate from the four-year program in May 2018.

CHSU’s leaders hope the university will provide close-to-home opportunities to local students seeking careers in medicine and might even attract outside students who will fall in love with the area and decide to stay and start their medical careers in the valley.

Next they plan to open an osteopathic medicine program, which they expect will begin educating students as early as 2019, according to Dr. Wendy Duncan, senior academic vice president and provost of the university. Dr. Duncan had previously served in a similar capacity at St. Louis College of Pharmacy.

“We realize that there is a huge need for physicians in California,” Dr. Duncan said “It is estimated that by 2030, the state will be short more than 8,000 primary care physicians and there will be a particular need in the Central Valley. So we are looking to recruit medical students who have grown up here. Then we hope to retain them in local residencies because we know that they will be more likely to stay here and practice since, by doing so, they can be close to their families and communities of origin.”

Dr. Duncan said they have chosen to offer a degree in osteopathic medicine instead of allopathic medicine because those who become osteopathic physicians gravitate more toward primary care medicine, which is currently the Central Valley’s greatest need. They expect their initial class size to be 150.

“We have a huge number of people in the valley who are retiring – including physicians – and the Central Valley is already underserved medically. People here, especially those living in rural areas, often must wait 25 to 30 days to see a doctor, according to the California Office of Statewide Health Planning and Development, and it is only going to get worse,” Dr. Duncan noted. “So we are heading to a crisis.”

“Add to that the fact that it has been difficult for enough students from the valley to get into medical school in order to meet our needs,” she added. “That is why we are working to develop a pipeline from the Clovis Unified School District and the Fresno Unified School District and others through college and then to our pharmacy or ultimately, our medical school. We hope to work with the local schools to teach highly competent students academic success skills and to allow them to shadow health care professionals and see what a heath care professional’s life is like.”

“This university was founded by local people, for local people,” she said. “The aim is to increase economic opportunity for our residents, as well as to provide health care to local people. Fifty-one percent of our local population is Hispanic and many of them have traditionally not gone to college. We want to change that because we know that there is a huge economic advantage to a college education and even more so, to a professional education.”

CHSU was the brainchild and dream of the Assemi family, owners of Granville Homes, which has built over 5,000 homes in the Central Valley since 1977.

“The Assemis are long-time residents who are really plugged-in, generous and civic-minded. They are wonderful about supporting causes they believe in,” said Shawn Miller, business development manager for the City of Clovis.

“The Assemi family has a heart for this community and it was their dream to establish a university in the San Joaquin Valley that could train masters and doctoral level health care practitioners in many different disciplines. They made the investment of capital, time and effort,” said Richele Kleiser, CHSU vice president of marketing and communications.

“Farid Assemi and his family understood that there is an extremely large need for medical professionals in the valley now. Then they projected out several decades and realized that the shortages will become even more severe if someone didn’t step in right now and do something about it.

“Our students leave the valley and don’t come back. Most medical programs link their students to residencies and on-the-job training close to the school. So students who leave establish their lives close to where they were trained and that has become a huge issue for us,” Kleiser added.

“Residencies are expensive and Medicare plays a huge role in their funding. Currently, many programs are capped,” Dr. Duncan said.

“That is why there is a bill going through the California legislature which is seeking to increase the number of medical residencies in California and have them funded by the state. We desperately need more physicians and to get them, we need more residencies,” she added.

CHSU leaders are currently working on a master plan for their permanent campus, to be conveniently located on approximately 65 acres in the Clovis Research and Technology Park, just north and west of the Clovis Community Medical Center campus. They are also deciding which other medical specialty colleges will follow the College of Pharmacy and in what order, based on needs in the Valley.

CHSU eventually plans to open as many as 10 post-graduate colleges to train health care professionals. After opening the osteopathic medicine program, next on the slate is focusing on Allied Health.

It is estimated that the build-out of the university and its campus will take 20 years because development of the campus will occur in phases as each new health science college is established.

The first building scheduled to be built on the permanent campus is a fully-equipped 90,000 square-foot medical school, Dr. Duncan said. They also plan to construct a research space that will eventually be shared by all of the university’s various colleges.

“But the plan is still very fluid. I would like to see us build student housing and a fitness facility. I think that having dorms to offer students would be very attractive,” she added.

Soon, a 60,000 square foot College of Pharmacy building will be constructed, too. Once that happens, the Clovis Avenue site will be used as an “incubator” for each new school they establish, allowing the administration to fully understand the space, facility and equipment needs of each college. Most of the colleges will move to the permanent campus only after they are well established. The osteopathic school – because of its special size and equipment needs – will be the only program that will be opened on the permanent campus.

Projections call for the university to one day enroll between 2,000 and 3,000 students and employ approximately 300 faculty and staff, all of whom “live by the values of the valley and see student success as key,” Dr. Duncan noted.

Dr. Duncan lauded the Assemi family for their vision and foresight in founding CHSU.

“Founding a heath sciences university is a very unusual thing for a family to do today,” she admitted. “But they saw the need and are trying to fill it. The caring here trickles down from them.”