Houston Rockets owner Tilman Fertitta donating $50M to UH medical school

Billionaire businessman Tilman Fertitta said he has always been a strong believer in the University of Houston medical school’s mission to improve health care equity in Texas. Now he’s donating $50 million to help make that vision a reality.

Fertitta and his family on Thursday announced what UH leaders say is a “transformational” donation for the fledgling medical school, which welcomed its first group of students just two years ago. In recognition, the school has been named the Tilman J. Fertitta Family College of Medicine, as it prepares to open a state-of-the-art, $80 million building this summer.

Fertitta, the owner of the Landry’s Inc. hospitality empire and the Houston Rockets, played a critical role in establishing the medical school as the longtime chairman of the UH system’s board of regents. But it’s the school’s mission to improve health and health care in the community that inspired him to make such a large donation, he said.

“Everybody should have the same medical treatment that anybody else has,” he said. “That’s one of the things that I like about this school, and where we’re trying to fit into the community. We want people to have good primary care, to take care of whatever you need to take care of.”


The University of Houston’s medical school will be named the Tilman J. Fertitta College of Medicine in recognition of the Fertitta Family Foundation’s $50 million donation.


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The University of Houston's medical school will be named the Tilman J. Fertitta College of Medicine in recognition of the Fertitta Family Foundation's $50 million donation.

The University of Houston’s medical school will be named the Tilman J. Fertitta College of Medicine in recognition of the Fertitta Family Foundation’s $50 million donation.


rendering

The University of Houston’s medical school will be named the Tilman J. Fertitta College of Medicine in recognition of the Fertitta Family Foundation’s $50 million donation.

The school was founded in 2019 with a curriculum that emphasizes community health, behavioral and mental health, preventative medicine and social determinants of health — the social and economic conditions that influence individual and community health.

The goal is for 50% of graduates to choose careers in primary care specialties, such as pediatrics and general internal medicine, to help address a shortage in Texas. The state’s Department of State and Human Services has estimated there will a shortage of 3,375 primary care physicians by 2030.

Improving health and health care equity have always been important issues in the medical community, which is why the school has focused on those areas from the offset. But the COVID-19 pandemic and the social justice movement have made them “front-burner” issues to a larger group of Americans, said Dr. Steven Spann, the medical school’s founding dean.

“This is something we were thinking about. This is our mission,” Spann said. “It’s wonderful to see society, and health care in particular, beginning to understand the importance of that and embrace it.”

The school is also focused on improving the diversity of physicians. Of the 60 students who have been part of the school’s first two classes, 67% are from groups that are underrepresented in medicine, and more than half came from a lower socioeconomic background, according to a news release. By comparison, just 13% of students admitted to US medical schools each year are Black or Hispanic.

Training the next generation of primary care physicians and improving health care equity are goals that go hand-in-hand, said Dr. Toi Harris, senior vice president and chief equity, diversity and inclusion officer for Memorial Hermann. If a medical school student has an opportunity to train in a primary care setting, it could help them understand how social determinants, such as socioeconomic status or access to education, affect a patient’s overall health.

“I think it’s tremendously helpful and will be impactful in terms of how they approach patient care and how they engage with the community,” Harris said. “Gaining exposure to these types of models during training really can help inform your career pursuits and the way you deliver care.”

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In his role as chairman of the UH board of regents, Fertitta has been aligned with the medical school’s mission to improve health care access and equity from the start, university President Renu Khator said.

“He really believes in its future and what it could do. He has a very clear idea of ​​where it could be in 10 years, or where it could be in 15 years,” she said. “For him to come forward and give this kind of gift to help the medical school take off and be something better than what it would be without these kinds of mental gifts, it’s amazing.”

The $50 million donation will go toward efforts to hire “top-notch faculty” and invest in research at the medical school, Khator said.

Tilman Fertitta, owner of Landry's, Inc., and the Houston Rockets, launched two blank-check companies in 2020.

Tilman Fertitta, owner of Landry’s, Inc., and the Houston Rockets, launched two blank-check companies in 2020.

courtesy

Here’s how the gift will be divided:

$10 million will go toward five endowed chairs; the school intends to hire scholars scholars who are focused on health care innovation. This $10 million will be matched as part of the university’s “$100 Million Challenge” for chairs and professorships.

$10 million will be used to establish an endowed scholarship fund to support endowed graduate research stipends and fellowships for medical students.

$10 million will go toward covering start-up costs for the medical school to enhance research activities.

$20 million will be used to create the Fertitta Dean’s Endowed Fund to support research-enhancing activities.

Fertitta’s donation also kicks off a $100 million fundraising campaign for the medical school. The money will be used to support scholarships, recruit faculty and pay for operational needs, such as equipment.

This isn’t the first time Fertitta, a UH alum, has given a substantial donation to his alma mater. Back in 2016, he donated $20 million to help fund a $60 million renovation of the university’s basketball arena, now known as the Fertitta Center.

The University of Houston's medical school will be named the Tilman J. Fertitta College of Medicine in recognition of the Fertitta Family Foundation's $50 million donation.

The University of Houston’s medical school will be named the Tilman J. Fertitta College of Medicine in recognition of the Fertitta Family Foundation’s $50 million donation.


Courtesy/University of Houston

The University of Houston's medical school will be named the Tilman J. Fertitta College of Medicine in recognition of the Fertitta Family Foundation's $50 million donation.

The University of Houston’s medical school will be named the Tilman J. Fertitta College of Medicine in recognition of the Fertitta Family Foundation’s $50 million donation.


Courtesy/University of Houston

The University of Houston’s medical school will be named the Tilman J. Fertitta College of Medicine in recognition of the Fertitta Family Foundation’s $50 million donation.

“I love Houston. Houston’s been very good to me. And the university is the namesake of our city,” Fertitta said. “It’s one of the few large public universities that are in a city the size of Houston, and that’s what makes it special.”

As chairman of the board of regents, Fertitta led the effort to select a site for the new $80 million College of Medicine building. The board decided in 2018 to build the 130,000 square foot building on a 43-acre tract of previously undeveloped campus land. The building is part of a planned life sciences complex along Martin Luther King Boulevard.

The medical school welcomed its first class of 30 students in 2020. For the past two years, the college’s temporary home has been the Health 2 building on campus.

The new building features a state-of-the-art anatomy suite, a clinical skills lab, patient examination rooms, a simulation center and large team-based learning classrooms.

Fertitta’s donation is a “morale-booster” for the medical school as the new building is set to open this summer, Spann said.

“We have this beautiful new building, and we now have a great name on our medical school,” he said. “It just builds momentum and builds enthusiasm. It will foster community support.”

Fertitta is also hopeful that his family’s donation will inspire others to support the medical school and its mission. He knows that his donation and the work being done at the medical school are just the start; further investments will be needed to improve health care equity in Texas and elsewhere in the US

However, he’s hopeful the $50 million donation will help to accomplish that goal. No one should have to spend 10 hours in an emergency room on a Saturday because they don’t have a primary care doctor, he said.

“This is going to be something that’s extremely special,” he said. “You just have to have the vision to look into the future.”

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