TYLER — The University of Texas Health Science Center at Tyler is expanding its residency program, a move that hospital officials are convinced will lead to more doctors and better access to medical care in East Texas.

The hospital plans to triple the number of graduate medical students it trains from 100 to about 300 by 2025 and offer more areas of specialized training.

Dr. Emmanuel Elueze, vice president for medical education and professional development at UT Health Science Center at Tyler, said it is likely that many who complete their residencies will practice medicine in East Texas, which has a higher rate of heart disease, stroke and respiratory diseases than other areas of Texas.

“East Texas unfortunately suffers from very poor (health) outcomes, so any help we can provide here will go a long way,” Elueze said in a statement released by the hospital.

Last year, Ardent Health Services and The University of Texas System jointly acquired East Texas Medical Center Regional Healthcare System and rebranded it UT Health East Texas.

Nashville-based Ardent assumed majority ownership of the 502-bed East Texas Medical Center Hospital in Tyler and its nine affiliated regional hospitals, 40 clinics and other health services providers. The system also incorporated what is now UT Health Northeast, its affiliated UT Health Science Center and 12 physician clinics.

At the time of the acquisition, Ardent announced it would invest $150 million to “expand medical education, research and community health” in East Texas.

The Health Science Center at Tyler is in charge of overseeing research and medical education in the UT Health East Texas system.

“From the UT perspective, this is certainly a great opportunity for us because we now have a health system in East Texas with much larger clinical resources,” Elueze said. “With the new health system, we can do a lot more in graduate medical education.”

Training

Residency is the post-graduate training of those who complete medical school. During this time — three to seven years depending on the program — doctors are trained in a specialized area of care under supervision of an attending physician or consultant.

Completing a residency is a requirement to obtain a nonrestricted license to practice medicine.

“The residency trains you to be the kind of doctor you want to be,” said Peggy Pazos, the director of graduate and undergraduate medical education at the Health Science Center.

Pazos said the hospital has never had a problem attracting residents. It receives more applicants than it can accept.

Dr. Sayyeda “Tooba” Hasan, a graduate of the Texas Tech University School of Medicine at Odessa, is a first-year resident in psychiatry.

She said the Health Science Center wasn’t initially on her radar, but the more she found out about the psychiatry residency the more she was attracted to it.

“I started checking off a lot of boxes of what I wanted,” she said, noting that she was looking for a hospital away from a big city yet reasonably close to Houston, where her parents live.

She said that when she interviewed to be a resident, “I knew this was a place I wanted to be.”

The Health Science Center was accredited for a four-year psychiatry residency in 2016. The program has six slots per class. Hasan is in the hospital’s second class.

During the residency, Hasan and her classmates will treat patients in the hospital and in out-patient settings and spend time working at Rusk State Hospital and Terrell State Hospital, two Texas Department of State Health Services hospitals that treat patients with mental disorders.

“The strength of this institution is that it is a collaborative and nurturing environment,” Hasan said of her training. “I can depend on our faculty for support.”

Doctor shortage

The region that includes Smith and surrounding counties “has detrimentally low numbers of mental health care providers,” says information on the hospital’s website.

A Department of State Health Services study released last year said that a 35-county East Texas region will continue through at least 2030 to have a shortage of psychiatrists.

Psychiatry is not the only area of medical care that is lacking in East Texas. The study projected that a shortage of primary care physicians will increase to 10 percent by 2030.

Elueze said the doctor shortage is especially problematic in East Texas, where people have serious illnesses at higher rates than other areas of the state.

Of the seven counties primarily served by the UT Health East Texas system, five rank near the bottom of all counties in Texas on key health factors that influence how long people live, a news release from the Health Science Center said.

Elueze also pointed to a 2016 report that said if Northeast Texas were a state, it would rank 49th among all states in percentage of the population with heart disease, 47th in percentage with chronic respiratory diseases and last in percentage of the population who suffer a stroke.

Meeting needs

The UT Health Science Center at Tyler is one of only a few university centers in Texas that provides graduate medical education and the only one in this part of the state. It offers five residency programs: occupational medicine, internal medicine, family medicine, rural family medicine and psychiatry.

The hospital recently received accreditation to begin offering a residency program in surgery and a second one in internal medicine.

In July, the hospital will begin accepting its first applications to these programs. Surgery will be a five-year residency with three available positions each year, and internal medicine will be three-year residency with 20 positions available each year.

Both programs will begin next year and be housed in the system’s flagship hospital in Tyler.

The Health Science Center also announced plans to launch a second family medicine residency. This one will be based out of its hospital and clinics in Athens. This program could start as early as 2021, a news release said.

More doctors throughout the health system will be taking on teaching roles as the residency program expands.

“UT Health East Texas has excellent physicians and clinicians,” Elueze said. “I would like to acknowledge and thank our community physicians for the important role that they continue to play in the training of our residents.”

It is likely that some who complete their training will stay in East Texas, Elueze said.

“The UT Health Science Center at Tyler has a very good track record of keeping our (former) residents in East Texas and in Texas,” Elueze said. “For instance, in our family residency program, 40 percent of those who graduate from our program stay in East Texas and 75 percent of our residents stay in Texas.”

The goal of expanding the residency program is to make East Texans healthier, he said.

“The most important reason we are starting residency programs is to provide excellent patient care. We want to produce high-quality physicians that will help us meet our goals for this health system and for East Texas ... (and) to educate the physician workforce that will serve the citizens of this region in the years to come.”