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Outgoing UNLV Dean Reflects On Starting A Medical School

The woman who has almost single-handedly forged UNLV’s new medical school is leaving her post.​

Barbara Atkinson, the first dean of the UNLV School of Medicine, has held that position five years. Atkinson announced she is leaving, but it will be a while yet before she really turns the reins over to someone else.

Atkinson said UNLV would start the search process in the summer and the search could take a year or more. She also plans to stick around to help smooth the transition for the new dean.

Atkinson has had a big agenda over the past five years. She was tasked with building a medical school from the ground up.

She said filling faculty and staff positions was not difficult.

“I was surprised to find out that it has actually been pretty easy,” she said.

Health professionals from around the country were eager to be part of a new project and a new way of teaching medicine.

That blank slate is the same reason Atkinson was attracted to the job at UNLV in the first place.

“I couldn’t believe there was a city this size and a city with the health needs that are here without an academic health center, without a medical school to really lead the academics of the entire region,” she said. “Just the thought that I could do things that weren’t done at other schools that were really thinking about the future for doctors that are going to be practicing for 50 years – what do they need?”

Atkinson also found it relatively easy to find students for the first 60 spots in the inaugural class. She said there were 300 students from Nevada who applied and she said they were all top-notch students.

It is those students who could be the answer to the state's doctor shortage, she said. 

“You have to teach the students here. And you have to teach kids who live here and want to stay here but they’re more apt to stay – 50 percent of them are apt to stay if they do medical school but if they do medical school and residency 70 percent of them are apt to stay,” she said.

She believes the percentage of UNLV medical students who stay in Nevada will be even higher than 70 percent because of their efforts to embed them into the medical community here right away.

However, Atkinson said the state is still missing residency programs for dozens of subspecialties, especially pediatric specialties. She remains hopeful that those vital residency programs will be created.

One of the biggest items on Atkinson's agenda that is still not done is construction for the medical school building. The state gave the school money and she has been working to get at a match from donors.

She said the school is working to "figure out" how to get the first building built. They are currently working on alternatives to a main educational building.

Atkinson believes the future of Southern Nevada is tied to creating a medical school.

“The economic needs of this region are really going to be centered on the health care of this population. That needs to be advanced,” she said.

Barbara Atkinson, founding dean, UNLV School of Medicine

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Since June 2015, Fred has been a producer at KNPR's State of Nevada.