Catholic medical school named for Padre Pio planned at Benedictine College

Benedictine College President Stephen D. Minnis and Catholic Healthcare International founder and President Jere D. Palazzolo sign a Collaborative Affiliation Agreement Sept. 8, 2022 in Denver, Colorado. Benedictine College President Stephen D. Minnis and Catholic Healthcare International founder and President Jere D. Palazzolo sign a Collaborative Affiliation Agreement Sept. 8, 2022 in Denver, Colorado, beginning the process of establishing an independent medical school on the Benedictine campus, as CHI board member Fr. Timothy Nelson, MD, looks on. | Benedictine College

Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas, has signed a collaboration agreement to host a proposed medical school that aims to train medical doctors faithful to Catholic ethics while addressing national shortfalls in medical care. 

The proposed St. Padre Pio Institute for the Relief of Suffering, School of Osteopathic Medicine will be an independent institution located on the Benedictine campus, which is about 50 miles northwest of Kansas City.

“It is vital to train future doctors at a place like Benedictine College that understands the essential role of faith and morality in the sciences,” Benedictine College President Stephen D. Minnis said Sept. 8. “The campus culture of community, faith, and scholarship that we have worked so hard to create will be the perfect home for the Padre Pio medical school at Benedictine College.”

The proposed school will be licensed, governed, financed, and accredited separately from the undergraduate college. Organizers hope to open for students in 2026. 

“The mission of the school is to train faithful physicians in the Catholic framework and through their practice of medicine, evangelize the good news of Jesus Christ,” Dr. George Mychaskiw, D.O., the founding president and CEO of the proposed medical school, told CNA Sept. 8. The planned school will adhere to “Ex corde Ecclesiae,” St. John Paul II’s 1990 apostolic constitution on the mission of Catholic colleges and universities. 

Benedictine College’s board of directors approved the launch of the project on Aug. 23. The college chose Sept. 8 as the day to sign the agreement because it is the feast of the Nativity of Mary. 

Catholic Healthcare International, the other party to the agreement, is based near St. Louis. It seeks to be a model of Christian health care delivery and works to provide training and support for health care professionals, according to its website. 

The organization takes inspiration from the work of St. Padre Pio, the Capuchin priest who opened a 300-bed hospital in southern Italy in 1956 called the Home for the Relief of Suffering. In 2009, Catholic Healthcare International signed a collaboration agreement with the Italian hospital’s leadership to expand St. Pio of Pietrelcina’s work, including through the establishment of a Catholic medical school. 

Mychaskiw, the proposed medical school’s founding president, is a pediatric cardiac anesthesiologist who has been a practicing physician since 1992. He has helped develop four colleges of medicine. He was the founding dean of Burrell College of Osteopathic Medicine at New Mexico State University, which opened in Las Cruces, New Mexico, in 2013. 

The project to launch a new medical school comes after the COVID-19 pandemic revealed serious health disparities, socioeconomic deprivation, and the difficulties that underrepresented minorities face in securing general health care, said Mychaskiw, who is presently based at the Ochsner-LSU Health Science Center in Shreveport, Louisiana.

“Many, if not most, of the underrepresented minorities in this country had health outcomes very disproportionate to their numbers in the population,” he said. “I work in in Louisiana, and most of the severely ill COVID patients I saw were African Americans.”

“COVID really underlined the real-world issues that we encounter in health disparities,” Mychaskiw said. “When you have people dying in front of you from COVID at numbers that are disproportionate to their percentage of the population, that makes it hit home.”

The pandemic also boosted the reputation of the medical profession, according to Mychaskiw. The number of medical school applications greatly increased. Physicians were seen as valuable in society, and the profession was resistant to economic shocks from the pandemic. 

“It’s still a respected profession,” he said, noting the attraction for those who want to help others in their career.

Benedictine College’s latest strategic plan has made STEM education a focus of particular emphasis. It also advocates advancing its mission through science and health care by forming students in bioethics.

The college is sponsored by the monks of St. Benedict’s Abbey and the sisters of Mount Scholastica Monastery. As of September 2021, it had more than 2,000 undergraduate students.

Mychaskiw said there is a “great prayer foundation” for the proposed medical school. Backers of the new medical school wanted to place it on the campus of a faithful Catholic university, he explained. They only considered universities recommended by the Cardinal Newman Society, an advocacy group for faithful Catholic education.

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“This is intended to be the most faithful Catholic medical school in the world,” Mychaskiw said. “We wanted to have a spiritual home for the medical student where they could be surrounded by a strong Catholic culture.” 

While plans are still in development, there is already a vision for training.

“The first two years will be spent in the medical school on the Benedictine campus,” the founding president said. “Then the last two years of training will be with faithful Catholic physicians and Catholic health care systems around the United States.”

After graduation, new doctors will take part in a residency program for further training. 

“We hope to create faithful Catholic residents and programs that will adhere to Catholic bioethical principles,” Mychaskiw said.

He emphasized that the medical school is not yet approved or accredited. Legally, the school may not yet solicit students, make offers of admission, or begin instruction.

There are several dozen osteopathic medical schools in the U.S., which teach almost one-third of U.S. medical students. There are a handful of Catholic osteopathic schools. The first opened in 2013 at the Indianapolis-based Marian University, a Franciscan institution.

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While other medical schools grant a doctor of medicine degree abbreviated as M.D., osteopathic schools grant a doctor of osteopathy degree, abbreviated as D.O. The two types of schools have different accreditation bodies, but both are rigorous. In addition, since 2020 all residency training for doctors is accredited through the same body.

“You can be confident that any accredited medical school in the U.S. meets a very high standard of performance,” Mychaskiw said. 

“The training and practice are almost identical,” he added. “Osteopathic schools provide additional training in musculoskeletal manipulation and the structure and function of the musculoskeletal system.”

“Philosophically, there’s a difference. Day-to-day, the practice is almost identical. It’s hard to tell an M.D. versus a D.O.,” he said. Speaking in generalizations, he said other medical schools tend to focus on “fixing diseases and individual organ issues,” while osteopathy schools are “more philosophically based in treating people.”

“A person is a body, mind and spirit, and you can’t treat one part of that without treating all the other parts,” he said.

There’s also a pragmatic difference. According to Mychaskiw, osteopathic medical schools “exist to train students to be physicians to work in communities” while other medical schools are driven by research grants and large hospitals. Medical training is “a side-effect of their research and clinical enterprises.”

“Medical schools are not an afterthought, but it’s not the way they are primarily structured,” he said.

Logistically, it is easier to launch an osteopathic school rather than a research-focused medical school, which would require hundreds of millions of more dollars in resources. 

Mychaskiw said the medical school project envisioned for the Benedictine campus will cost at least $70 million, not including $50 million for a building, to launch responsibly.

Backers’ short-term goal is to secure $2 million in cash on hand and another $30 million in contracted commitments. Organizers hope to meet this goal by summer 2023.

Other leaders for the project include Jere Palazzolo, president of Catholic Healthcare International, and Father Timothy Nelson, M.D., a former cardiologist and priest of the Diocese of Lansing, Michigan, and a Catholic Healthcare International board member.

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