UT Health Northeast soon will begin construction on a building for its new School of Community and Rural Health.

The University of Texas System on Thursday approved $30 million in Permanent University Funds for construction of the three-story building to be located south of Health Center Drive, across from the school’s Academic Center.

The groundbreaking is expected to take place next spring, with the opening coming in late 2018 or early 2019.

“This is the first free-standing, academic building on our campus,” UT Health Northeast President Dr. Kirk Calhoun said. “Northeast Texas has many public health challenges and disparities. This building will be a model for wellness in the community, promoting a healthy lifestyle and educating the community on the core areas of public health.”

The UT System and the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board approved the launch of a School of Community and Rural Health earlier this year.

Dr. David Lakey, dean of UT Health Northeast’s School of Community and Rural Health and senior vice president for population health, said the school has been working to get students and hire faculty.The first cohort of students is slated to begin the two-year Master of Public Health program in January. Lakey said starting at that time will give the school a student count that will be helpful in getting funding for the next biennium.

Rural health is a key issue in East Texas. A report released in August by the UT System and UT Health Northeast showed if the 35-county Northeast Texas region were a state it would rank 49th in heart disease mortality, 47th in chronic lower respiratory disease mortality and 51st in stroke mortality. In overall mortality (death from all causes) it would rank 45th.

These poor health outcomes are due more to behaviors and other issues related to this region rather than factors such as physicians or insurance rates, Lakey said.

Therefore, these problems cannot be solved simply by taking care of people when they are sick.

Rather, communities must work to improve the conditions in which people live and provide them with services that can help them stay healthy, Lakey said.

This means developing a workforce that reaches out to rural communities better and works to bring state resources to the region.

That’s part of the game-change that having a health science center and, in this case, a School of Community and Rural Health, accomplishes, Lakey said.

It allows the center to concentrate on improving health and bringing in state and national resources to do so, Lakey said.

The new building is in the design phase, but likely will be between 81,000 and 90,000 square feet. Inside it will house classrooms, offices and the school’s administration, according to a news release. Smith Group of Dallas, the architectural firm that designed UT Tyler’s School of Pharmacy, is designing this facility.

The focus of the school will be research, service and education. The first cohort of students is expected to number between 15 and 20. Some of them will be coming straight from earning their bachelor’s degree while others will be physicians, Lakey said.

The school is bringing about 10 people on staff initially and expects to bring on more faculty members in the future.

Lakey said this school will partner well with the rest of the institution and the work already going on in other areas of health care and medicine.

“We built it upon the foundation that is already there at our institution,” Lakey said.

While there are several Schools of Public Health around the state, this one and one being developed at Texas Tech are the two with a primary focus on rural health.

Twitter: @TMTEmily

City Editor

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