A 50-Year Look at Peoria's Medical School

For half a century, UICOMP has fulfilled a three-part mission of service, education and research.

by Susan Grebner, University of Illinois College of Medicine Peoria
University of Illinois College of Medicine Peoria

In 1970, a group of local physicians and community leaders founded the Peoria Medical School. Their goal was to train physicians who would remain in Peoria and central Illinois communities to practice medicine. Fast forward 50 years, and that vision has come to fruition as the University of Illinois College of Medicine Peoria (UICOMP)—its current name—prepares future physicians, provides clinical services and conducts impactful research. 

Today, UICOMP plays a significant role in the regional economy. Healthcare is the largest employment sector in Greater Peoria, with 708 healthcare establishments that employ 29,731 people—providing 16 percent of area jobs, according to data from the Greater Peoria Economic Development Council. With physicians as the navigators of healthcare, doctors in our community play an integral role in our region’s broad range of health services, quality of patient care and economic impact. That is why UICOMP was founded 50 years ago: to contribute to such a vibrant healthcare community.

Dr. Meenakshy Aiyer
Dr. Meenakshy Aiyer, UICOMP regional dean. Sonshine Portrait Design

“We have a three-part mission of service, education and research,” notes Meenakshy Aiyer, MD, regional dean of the Peoria campus. “Our university faculty provide care to patients in the community. As an educational institution, we train physicians for the future, while faculty conduct clinical and basic science research to better understand diseases and help find cures and treatments.”

Training Future Physicians
A recent study indicates that one out of six physicians in Illinois have received their MD or resident training from the University of Illinois College of Medicine. Here in Peoria, UICOMP trains over 500 medical students, residents and fellows annually—including 244 students in the four-year curriculum. “Our undergraduate medical education program has changed and expanded over the last 50 years,” explains Jessica Hanks, MD, interim associate dean of academic affairs. “We are excited for the curriculum innovation that UICOMP has to offer, and look forward to training the next generation of medical students.”

After completing four years of medical school, students graduate with their MD degree but must complete a residency or fellowship in their specialty area before they can sit for the licensing exams required to practice medicine. Residencies run three to seven years, depending on the area of specialization.

UICOMP enrolls 271 residents and fellows in 13 different residency programs and 29 fellows in its eight fellowships. These programs have trained many physicians who have gone on to practice in central Illinois, says Francis McBee Orzulak, MD, interim associate dean for graduate medical education. “While not everyone stays, it is important to understand that while here for training, our nearly 300 residents and fellows—along with our faculty and students—are major contributors to the world-class healthcare that we deliver in partnership with our clinical affiliates.”

Training tomorrow’s physicians offers its own challenges, Dr. Aiyer explains. “As faculty, we must employ techniques and methods to effectively teach our learners the knowledge, skills and competencies that will be relevant and effective in 10 years. That is no small feat given the ever-evolving technology, advances in medical diagnosis and treatment, and emerging innovation in medicine. It is also a key reason why, as physicians, we must be lifelong learners.”

UICOMP welcomes its first class of firstyear medical students
In 2017, UICOMP welcomed its first class of first-year medical students and a transition to a new curriculum.

Providing Clinical Care
UICOMP faculty provide clinical services at OSF Saint Francis Medical Center, Children’s Hospital of Illinois and UnityPoint Health – Methodist, which ranges from taking care of babies in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit to helping elderly patients in the wards. Faculty cover a wide spectrum of clinical services, from pediatrics to neurosurgery to psychiatry, including serving the community both in the hospital and in ambulatory practice.

UICOMP’s Pediatric Resource Center is a community service program that provides direct services to suspected victims of physical abuse, sexual abuse and neglect in a child-friendly manner and setting. It provides medical evaluation and social services to children, ages birth to 18, from 50 central Illinois counties. UICOMP also offers services for persons living with HIV/AIDS through Positive Health Solutions, a comprehensive clinic that offers care, outreach and advocacy.

Clinical care is central to the mission of the College of Medicine. “Our faculty are physicians first,” Aiyer says of the 1,369 faculty members responsible for educating and training the future physicians. Of those faculty, 170 are full-time, 80 are part-time, and 1,119 are volunteer. 

Conducting Research
Research at UICOMP includes not only basic science research in a laboratory setting, but also clinical research and outcomes research. Clinical research provides knowledge for understanding human disease, prevention and treatment, while outcomes research studies the end results of healthcare to identify benefits or shortfalls to patients—with the ultimate goal of developing strategies to improve care.

The primary basic science research department at UICOMP is Cancer Biology and Pharmacology (CBP), where faculty conduct research on cancer biology, neuroscience and ion channel biology. Ongoing research is focused on brain tumors, breast and prostate cancer, Alzheimer’s, dementia, stroke and spinal cord injury, among other areas.

Partnering With the Community
The University of Illinois College of Medicine Peoria relies on strong ties and collaboration with its community partners. With two affiliate hospitals within walking distance of campus, medical students and residents have access to broad clinical experiences with more than 950 licensed hospital beds. 

UICOMP collaborates with Jump Simulation, a part of OSF Innovation, to offer medical students electives in medical simulation and healthcare innovation, research and product development experiences. Residents, fellows and faculty also benefit from the realistic simulation and training experiences Jump provides, as all areas of patient care can be replicated using real medical equipment and the latest in simulation technology. This allows learners to practice in a safe, realistic environment to gain experience.

“Our community partners are essential in preparing our medical students to be future physicians,” Dr. Aiyer explains. “At UICOMP, we describe our mission as ‘Lead Collaboration to Improve Health’ and that really sums up what we do and why we do it. As we prepare to celebrate 50 years as Peoria’s medical school, we are thankful for the vision and dedication of our founders, proud of the contributions to quality care that our faculty and alumni have made to our community, and grateful to our collaborators who make it all possible.”  PM

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