Eight more staff members for the proposed Arkansas College of Osteopathic Medicine will be hired by April as the state’s first osteopathic medical college takes shape at Chaffee Crossing in Fort Smith in hopes of quelling a "medical crisis" in physician shortage.

Eight more staff members for the proposed Arkansas College of Osteopathic Medicine will be hired by April as the state’s first osteopathic medical college takes shape at Chaffee Crossing in Fort Smith in hopes of quelling a "medical crisis" in physician shortage.


Several more hospital systems in Arkansas have also signed on to take in future osteopathic physician residents.


Speaking to more than 200 community leaders during a ceremonial groundbreaking Tuesday morning, Arkansas Colleges of Health Education President and CEO Kyle Parker said the staff members will add to the 12 staff members currently on board for a project that aims to improve medical coverage in Arkansas and Oklahoma.


"We are bringing resumes in on these people now and the interest is overwhelming for this great project we have in front of us," Parker said.


Calling the current physician shortage a "medical crisis," Parker said that 30 percent of primary care doctors are older than 60 and Arkansas is 49th in the country in providing medical care.


"Hospitals and clinics are working very diligently to get these doctors," Parker added. "We will only graduate 150 of the students a year. It’s a small dent. But our intent is to keep them all in the state of Arkansas."


John R. Taylor, board chairman of the Arkansas Colleges of Health Education, said the college will create "dividends for years to come." And when he moved to Fort Smith 40 years ago, the city was a "medial Mecca." Over the years there have been losses, but those losses have been exaggerated, Taylor added.


Planning for an influx of physician residents at local hospitals has been ongoing with Mercy Fort Smith, Cooper Clinic, Sparks Health System, the Choctaw Nation Health Center, and Community Health Centers of Arkansas. Parker announced several more Tuesday, including Baptist Healthcare Systems, Catholic Health Initiatives, White River Health System, and the White County Medical Center.


Construction on the $32.4 million, 102,000-square-foot college is expected to begin in the next two weeks. Accreditation is ongoing with the first class of 150 students to be inducted in the fall of 2016. The structure will house the latest developments in medical technology along with classrooms, labs, lecture halls, and administrative office space.


An initial endowment of $60 million, from the Fort Smith Regional Healthcare Foundation to the Degen Foundation, for creation of the medical college has grown to over $107.8 million in the past year. An anonymous family who Parker said "wanted to make a difference in lives," contributed $14 million.


"That is a very humbling thing to take place," Parker said. "On that phone call they said ‘We want to give you $14 million.’ Tears came out of my eyes. … It’s that kind of love and compassion that makes a difference, when great people do great things."


Parker also commended Frazier Edwards of The Arkansas Osteopathic Medical Association for his drive in the past five years to help build an osteopathic college in Arkansas.


"It’s because of the unrelenting compassion of people that have made decisions to back this organization and to building something that is truly going to make a difference in the lives throughout the state of Arkansas and eastern Oklahoma," Parker said.


Dr. Kenneth A. Heiles, vice president and dean of the proposed school, said the groundbreaking for the "state-of-the-art educational facility" will help fulfill the need to bring to medical care to the residents of the state and the region.


The college’s chief operating officer, Tom Webb, said the proposed college will have an $100 million annual economic impact on the region, but "the greatest advantage in having the school is that it will improve the quality of life and health for the citizens in the River Valley and the entire state of Arkansas."


"The well-being of our citizens is the primary benefit that will come forth," Webb said in a news release. "Improving the overall health and helping to create health awareness has always been our mission-driven objective."