Educating Future Doctors

Barbara Atkinson, M.D., accepted the position of planning dean of the new University of Nevada, Las Vegas School of Medicine in May 2014 while on vacation with her husband, Bill. In fact, when she retired in 2012 after a 37-year career that encompassed pathology, research, teaching and administration, moving to Las Vegas wasn’t even on the radar.

But when Dr. Atkinson was contacted about heading up the new school of medicine, she researched Nevada’s statistics for health care and realized she could make a real difference. She accepted the position and made the move to Las Vegas with her husband.

Barbara AtkinsoShe is now planning and implementing the necessary steps with a goal of the UNLV School of Medicine to achieve preliminary accreditation to admit its first class of students in 2017. Her role as founding dean includes all aspects of the formation and launch of the new medical school, inclusive of leading the school’s charter accreditation, faculty recruitment, planning and implementing the school’s educational blueprint, managing overall school operations, philanthropy and community outreach.

Students at UNLV School of Medicine will begin their education with a six-week emergency medical technician (EMT) course resulting in certification and early experience in the community. The curriculum offers changes from traditional medical schools, including instruction in new technologies such as virtual anatomy and microscopy; a community-based approach to treating mental health and addictions; and a core emphasis on bioethics. As a member of President Obama’s Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues, this issue is of great importance to Dr. Atkinson.

As for her decision to enter the sciences as a career, her father was her inspiration. “He was a biochemist with a Ph.D. who taught at Ohio State medical school,” Dr. Atkinson said. “He started me participating in science fair projects and helped me in junior and high school. I developed an interest in science research at a young age and remained fascinated.”

Dr. Atkinson married her husband right after graduating from college. Her husband had just graduated from medical school. For his internship in internal medicine at Thomas Jefferson University, they moved to Philadelphia and there was one woman, Carla Goepp, in his classes. She was the first woman to be accepted into an internship at Jefferson. Dr. Goepp would become very good friends with the couple and would encourage and help Dr. Atkinson continue her education.

At the time, Dr. Atkinson started a family, and then her husband was a flight surgeon in Vietnam for a year, making her a single mother. “During this period, I knew I wanted to pursue a career,” she said. Her husband and father supported her, and her father suggested she attend medical school instead of pursuing her doctorate degree in biochemistry. When she entered college to study for a career in medicine, there were few women. “I am glad I took my father’s advice,” she said.

This is not her first time starting a medical school. “When I was the dean in Kansas, we started a new campus in Salina [Kansas], a city of 50,000 people that had never had a medical school before,” Dr. Atkinson said.

According to Dr. Atkinson, while there is the infrastructure of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, this is the first medical school and a new infrastructure needs to be created. “The big challenge was just starting with me. I was literally a one-person office,” she said. She focused on team building, and now has 29 staff members to work with her on establishing the medical school. “It has been challenging, but also fun,” Dr. Atkinson admitted.

While she works on developing the medical school’s clinical practice, research, and finalizing the accreditation so more physicians can practice in Southern Nevada, Dr. Barbara Atkinson continues to be a Fearless Female.