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Dreaming big dreams: the University of Alabama at Birmingham School of Medicine.

We would do Birmingham a great disservice if we dreamed too little dreams.

Joseph F. Volker. DDS, PhD UAB president, 1969-1976

During the height of World War II, there was a growing movement in the South, especially in Alabama, to upgrade medical education opportunities. With that as a backdrop, Alabama Governor Chaucy Sparks announced in his 1943 inaugural address that he intended to establish a 4-year medical school within the state. By the summer of 1945, the 4-year University of Alabama School of Medicine had been established in Birmingham at the 17-story Jefferson Hospital. This school provided the 2-year basic science program, originally available in Tuscaloosa, as well as the final 2 years of medical training that had not formerly existed within the state, which comprised the seed that would grow into the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB).

But that was just the start of what would become the largest training ground for future health care providers in the state. During the next 35 years, UAB anticipated the needs of people in Alabama and provided the education and training experiences necessary to meet the forecast demand. Over the years, the university added a dental school (1948), a nursing school (1967), an allied health school (1969), an optometry school (1969), and a public health school (1980).

None of this expansion would have been possible without the exciting research and innovations that were taking place in patient care. Physicians who would become some of the world leaders in their fields came to the fledgling medical school in Birmingham. One of the giants was Dr. Tinsely R. Harrison, who joined the faculty in 1950. He had an approach to medicine that was much different from that of his contemporaries. He believed in focusing on the patient rather than on the disease. This philosophy has been spread throughout the world as a result of his book, Principles of Internal Medicine, (1) one of the world's most widely used internal medicine textbooks. The recruitment of the leading physicians of the United States continued at a steady pace with additions such as Dr. Walter B. Frommeyer, a nationally recognized hematologist; Dr. Basil Hirschowitz, the developer of the fiberoptic gastroscope; and Dr. S. Richardson Hill, who initiated laboratory research concentrating on metabolism of adrenal steroids.

One of the breakthrough additions to the faculty at UAB was Dr. John W. Kirklin in 1966. Despite the negative image of Birmingham after the civil rights events of the 1950s and 1960s, Kirklin came to UAB because he was impressed with the school's challenge and potential. His recruitment put UAB on a par with all of the major academic medical centers in the recruitment of nationally and internationally recognized faculty.

The University of Alabama System--composed of the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa, the University of Alabama at Birmingham, and the University of Alabama at Huntsville--was created in 1969. At the same time, the Medical College of Alabama, located in Birmingham, became known as the University of Alabama School of Medicine.

Today, the University of Alabama School of Medicine (UASOM) has an earned tradition of excellence in research and clinical care and is recognized as a leader in many fields. It currently has 1,034 funded research grants and contracts representing an aggregate of approximately $204 million in peer-reviewed research, two-thirds ($136 million) of which is federal support. There are 869 pending grant projects that total $552 million. In Fiscal Year 2002, UASOM ranked 17th in the United States in research awards received from the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

Top 10 by 2010

UAB and its medical school have an even higher aspiration: a goal of being included among the top 10 medical schools in the United States in terms of NIH funding by 2010. To support that goal, an ambitious plan that involves the addition of more than 200 new faculty members by 2008 has been launched. To accommodate these promising new researchers, UAB has undertaken a series of massive building projects to provide sorely needed space for research and clinical care. Those projects include the following:

* A new University Hospital building is expected to open in 2004. The new building includes 850,000 square feet and features an emergency room the size of a football field, expanded operating suites, and more. The projected cost of this structure is $275 million.

* The Hugh Kaul Human Genetics Building, opened in 2001, includes 62,850 square feet of research space and can accommodate more than 12,000 patients per year. The cost of building this structure was $35 million.

* The Biomedical Research Building II was also occupied in 2001. It comprises 44,500 square feet. The cost of building this structure was $22 million.

* The Richard M. and Annette Shelby Interdisciplinary Research Building. That building, slated for completion in 2004, will include 208,000 square feet of research space. The projected cost of building this structure is $100 million.

* Renovation and additions to Volker Hall, the primary academic building for UAB's medical education program, will add a six-story medical office tower with 13,000 square feet of space. The projected cost of building this structure is $36 million.

In 2002, UASOM received 1,384 applications for admission. Among the 161 individuals who were accepted, the mean undergraduate grade point average was 3.67, and the mean Medical College Admission Test score was 30.0. Approximately 86% of students come from Alabama; 59% are men and 40% are women. In 2002, 8% were members of minority groups. In UASOM and UAB's joint health sciences program, there are 1,084 faculty and 2,637 staff members, including 330 full professors and 569 residents and interns.

A Building for Teaching and Learning

In 2002, UASOM embarked on the most ambitious phase of its $36 million renovation of Volker Hall, the primary academic building for UAB's medical education program. The renovation includes the construction of a new academic tower, updated technology and classroom space, computer laboratories, and clinical examination rooms.

To integrate and facilitate education, mentoring, and communication between medical students and faculty, the student tower features small classrooms, group study rooms, lockers, learning communities with independent study space, and open communal space. Also, the tower has clinical examination rooms set up like doctors' offices and is equipped with cameras so that students can practice patient interview techniques while being monitored by an examiner.

Clinical practice space is a key component of the new building because students at UASOM begin working on their clinical skills on their first day of medical school. In the "Introduction to Clinical Medicine" course offered during the first 2 years, students learn techniques of medical interviewing and physical diagnosis.

In its predoctoral medical education program, the first two basic science years are taught on the main campus at UAB; the last two clinical years are divided between the main campus and the two branch campuses in Huntsville and Tuscaloosa. The three units are accredited as the UASOM by the Liaison Committee on Medical Education.

Like most states with large rural areas, the state of Alabama faces a critical shortage of primary care physicians, particularly in underserved rural areas. More than 25 years ago, UASOM established regional medical campuses in Huntsville and Tuscaloosa. Their mission was to have full-time faculty and volunteer faculty from local communities educate 100 medical students and as many as 72 family practice residents each year. Since 1976, the Huntsville Regional Medical Campus has trained 352 medical students who chose primary care residencies (61% of total enrollment), 35% of whom now practice in rural areas. Graduates of the Tuscaloosa program currently practice in 41 Alabama counties.

Training the Next Generation

In addition to the medical education program, UAB offers a Medical Scientist Training Program, which was established in 1987 as 1 of 39 MD-PhD programs funded by the NIH's National Institute of General Medical Sciences. This combined MD-PhD program prepares students for careers that combine laboratory investigation of disease mechanisms with the practice and teaching of clinical medicine in an academic setting. Although many graduates continue to pursue either basic research or clinical medicine as a primary focus, offering training in both areas from the beginning of graduate studies provides a unique opportunity for graduates to make contributions in translational research. The Medical Scientist Training Program comprised 57 students during the 2002-2003 academic year.

The Minority Medical Education Program (MMEP) is a novel program with the goal of encouraging promising minority students to pursue medical careers. This 6-week summer program at the UAB campus helps students hone their knowledge of the basic sciences and improve their writing and computer skills. Those students who are nearest to graduation spend time reviewing for the Medical College Admission Test. All of the MMEP students spend time in research laboratories and in clinics with physician preceptors. The program is sponsored by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Association of American Medical Colleges. UASOM was one of eight MMEP sites in the United States last summer. Since MMEP began in 1989, more than 5,500 students have participated in the program.

Conversely, the Early Medical School Acceptance Program offers top high school students who qualify a guaranteed place in the University of Alabama School of Medicine after they complete their bachelor's degrees. While at UAB, students in the Early Medical School Acceptance Program participate in various clinical, research, and volunteer opportunities in addition to completing their coursework.

Students who wish to expand their experience outside Alabama may participate in the Medical Student Enrichment Program, which provides service and training opportunities in developing countries and underserved areas throughout the world. Students may participate in community health projects or clinics in urban or rural settings or in medical student exchange programs with selected foreign universities. Medical Student Enrichment Program sites include the Czech Republic, The Gambia, Guatemala, Jamaica, Mongolia, Romania, Russia, St. Vincent, Slovakia, Taiwan, and Zambia.

UASOM can trace its origins back almost 150 years, back to Antebellum Mobile and the original Medical College of Alabama. Today as in 1859, the school remains dedicated to its mission of service to the people of Alabama through excellence in teaching, research, and patient care.


(1.) Braunwald E, Fauci AS. Kasper DL. et al (eds): Harrison's Principles of Internal Medicine. New York, McGraw-Hill, 2001, ed 15, 2 vols.

From the Media Relations Office, University of Alabama at Birmingham School of Medicine, Birmingham, AL.

Reprint requests to Media Relations Office, University of Alabama at Birmingham School of Medicine, AB 1320, 1530 Third Avenue S., Birmingham, AL 35294-0113. Email:

Accepted May 8, 2003.
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Article Details
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Title Annotation:Centers of Excellence
Author:Mansfield, Laura A.
Publication:Southern Medical Journal
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Aug 1, 2003
Previous Article:A letter from the editorial office of the Southern Medical Journal.
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