JACKSON, Miss. (AP) -- Dr. Richard O'Callaghan is struggling to teach microbiology labs to medical students in a 1955 building. Dr. Anna Lerant's medical simulation program is squeezed into a warren of small rooms built for other things.
Mississippi leaders say larger and more modern teaching space is on the way for those teachers and their students, part of a plan to further expand the number of physicians educated at the University of Mississippi Medical Center.
Gov. Phil Bryant, University of Mississippi Chancellor Dan Jones and others broke ground Monday on a new $63 million building on the Jackson campus that would allow the school to add another 30 to 40 students per class. The school already raised its class size from 100 a year to the current 135 over a period of years ending in 2010.
"We just simply don't have enough doctors and so people are dying," Bryant said. "We're going to say to Mississippians: 'Help will be on the way, more doctors will be coming soon.'"
Bryant said the state should look to health care not only as an aid to people but as a way to improve the economy.
"If you look at the future of health care in Mississippi as an economic driver, it has to start with more physicians," he said.
The governor steered $10 million in federal grant money to help get construction started. But the governor and university leaders are looking to the Legislature to authorize state borrowing to pay for rest.
Bryant said his goal is for lawmakers to borrow $25 million this year and $25 million in 2014 to pay for the five-story, 151,000-square-foot building.
"The Legislature is going to have to step up," Bryant said.
Jones said he's not worried that the Legislature could fail to act and money run out once construction begins.
"I like the governor's confidence in this," Jones said.
Many medical schools across the country are expanding class sizes to try to keep up with the increasing demand for health care. Jones said Mississippi's medical school can't grow more without more space, though.
"Our barrier right now is enough lab space and classroom space to train more students," he said.
Lerant knows that obstacle well. Medical simulation, where students learn to do procedures on electronic mannequins, is a growing part of the education not only of doctors but nurses, dentists, pharmacists and paramedics.
Lerant jokes that one tiny room in the current building can hold six students "if they really like each other." Of another, she says "It's a little bit oddly shaped, but we couldn't get anything better."
The new building will relieve those pressures, with plans calling for six simulation suites.
Lab space is another critical need. O'Callaghan, chairman of the Microbiology Department, says the main lab isn't big enough to accommodate all students since the school expanded enrollment.
O'Callaghan said the department has limited student lab work to eight hours instead of the national standard 24 because of the conditions. And that's a bad outcome for students, because they learn concepts better in the lab than from a book.
"I always would have liked to have more, but the logistics are so bad," O'Callaghan said.
Jones saluted the governor in giving UMMC the ability to get started on the new building, saying Bryant has gone beyond just supporting the school.
"It's a totally different thing to say 'I will provide the leadership for this,'" Jones said. "He's the person who's really responsible for getting us to these shovels today."
- Phil Bryant