Xavier University of Louisiana and Ochsner Health announced an agreement Tuesday (Jan. 17) to create a new college of medicine that will build a pipeline of physicians ready to address the nation’s persistent health care disparities.

The Xavier-Ochsner College of Medicine’s mission will be consistent with the tenets of Saint Katharine Drexel, who founded Xavier University of Louisiana in 1915 along with the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, to promote “a more just and humane society.”

Xavier’s president Reynold Verret, himself a trained biochemist and immunologist, referred to those founding instructions as he stood with Pete November, CEO of Ochsner Health, to announce the agreement to establish the joint college of medicine. 

“Our work with Ochsner and other partners, who hold close to their hearts a vision of healing a broken world, is a testament to Xavier’s mission to promote a more just and humane society,” he said, before a ceremony that included remarks from U.S. Rep. Troy Carter, U.S. Sen. Bill Cassidy and City Council President J.P. Morrell.

The COVID-19 pandemic laid bare the chronic inequities in the nation’s health care system. The virus initially struck harder in Black and Latino communities exposed to the virus through frontline jobs, public transportation and multi-generational households. Increased mortality in the same communities stemmed from a number of structural factors, including a lack of access to testing and care. 

Those founding the new medical school have those chronic inequities firmly within their sights. “Our purpose is to remedy prejudicial and inequitable structures in health care … and to embark on a journey that advances health equity for all the peoples of this nation,” Verret said.

November, the Ochsner Health CEO, promised Xavier medical students “outstanding clinical training in our integrated health care system” and noted that this partnership demonstrated Ochsner’s commitment to “training the next generation of health care providers, to solve the critical shortage of physicians in the United States and meet the needs of the diverse communities we serve.” 

Philanthropy teams from both institutions will work to raise money for the new med school. The total price tag was not immediately available.

Of the 170 medical schools nationwide, Xavier University of Louisiana would become one of six HBCUs to have its own medical school, joining the ranks of Meharry Medical College in Nashville; Howard University College of Medicine in Washington, D.C.; Morehouse School of Medicine in Atlanta; and Charles R. Drew University of Medicine and Science in Los Angeles. Morgan State University in Maryland also announced last year that it is opening its own medical school. 

Xavier, the nation’s only Black and Catholic institution, is nationally recognized for its science, technology, engineering and mathematics curriculum. Its College of Pharmacy has long been among the top schools in the nation to produce Black graduates with Doctor of Pharmacy degrees. It is the No. 1 undergraduate source in the nation of Black graduates who go on to become medical doctors. That makes Xavier “uniquely poised” for its new role, Verret said

In 1910, Verret noted, an American Medical Association evaluation called the Flexner Report dealt a death blow to most medical schools associated with Black institutions. Of the country’s seven Black medical colleges, only Meharry and Howard survived. According to the Association of American Medical Colleges, only 5 percent of all medical doctors in the United States are Black. “That percentage has remained unchanged largely throughout my adult life,” Verret said last year, as he testified before Congress, calling the closures “an alarming look at how the U.S. could have had a more diverse mixture in health professions” – had the schools remained open. 

That report laid the foundations for many of today’s health inequities, because Black doctors are critically unrepresented across the health care fields, Verret said. “And representation among medical practitioners is critical for our Black and brown communities, because representation means greater quality of care, improved access, and greater patient trust in their health providers and the health care system,” he said.

More than a century ago, those critical closures coincided with Xavier’s founding. So the Sisters of Blessed Sacrament took trains across the nation, to learn how to prepare students from Xaiver to go to somebody else’s medical schools. “They were intent on doing that, because being a health-equity leader is in our founding. It’s in our DNA. It is who we are,” said Xavier provost Anne McCall. “We have always been about health equity. Always. What we are doing today is no surprise … it’s bound up in what we’ve been doing for almost a century.” 

To create the new med school, Ochsner and Xavier will form a nonprofit corporation, create its own curriculum and use the facilities, personnel and administrative processes of both institutions. Each institution will appoint an equal number of directors to the College of Medicine’s governing board. 

Xavier and Ochsner first established a partnership in the early 1980s, to offer more clinical training sites for students from Xavier’s College of Pharmacy.

During the pandemic, Ochsner and Xavier also worked to combat health inequities through new graduate programs in health sciences and through the establishment of the Ochsner Health and Xavier University Institute for Health Equity and Research. Last year, another Xavier-Ochsner partnership, the Physician Assistant Program, graduated its first class, 37 students who went through a full-time, master’s-level program designed to improve diversity within health sciences.

To Dr. Leonardo Seoane, chief academic officer for Ochsner Health, the partnership and creation of the new College of Medicine marked a “monumental step” in responding to health inequities and what he described as “the persistent dearth, the lack of diversity among doctors.” That is especially true in this region, he said. When looking at the proportion of Black physicians, “Louisiana actually ranks last,” he said. “And the truth is, we’ve seen no significant progress in the last 30 years on that fact.”

That underrepresentation is directly related to health inequities, Seoane said. “When physicians and caregivers look like the communities they serve, patients get better care.” 

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Katy Reckdahl joins Verite after working as a staff reporter for The Times-Picayune and the alt-weekly Gambit before spending a decade as a freelancer, writing frequently for the New Orleans Advocate |...