Is A Medical School In GRs Future

October 17, 2003
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GRAND RAPIDS — Many of the pieces are in place.

Grand Rapids is home to a world-class research institute, top-notch health systems and teaching hospitals, a new center for health sciences education, and a consortium whose mission is to expand medical education locally.

So when might Grand Rapids become the home of a medical school?

To some degree, Grand Rapids essentially already is for some 300 medical students from Michigan State University's School of Human Medicine who annually receive their third and fourth year clinical training here at Spectrum Health and Saint Mary's Mercy Medical Center.

For Spectrum Health Chief Executive Officer Rick Breon, the immediate question — as it has been for many years — is expanding on what's already in place with MSU in Grand Rapids.

In addition to the clinical training, MSU's School of Human Medicine offers limited academic instruction and lectures in Grand Rapids for first and second year medical students via the Grand Rapids Medical Education & Research Center for Health Professions, of which MSU, Spectrum Health, Saint Mary's Mercy Medical Center and Grand Valley State University are members.

Spectrum Health and MSU have an "ongoing dialog" about medical education offerings in Grand Rapids and are "trying to add some clarity" to the picture as the health system plans for the future, Breon said.

"We're looking at how medical education fits in this community and fits with Spectrum Health," Breon said.

Grand Rapids is the largest of six campuses statewide where MSU places medical residents, as well as a "highly desirable location" for many medical students who want to tap in to the strong specialty and sub-specialty clinical base in West Michigan, said Dr. Glenn Davis, dean of the university's School of Human Medicine.

MSU and Spectrum are discussing a "wide variety of options" for the future, Davis said. Discussions between the university and health system that have gone on for years have accelerated in the last year or so and include the possibility of expanding the third and fourth year offerings in Grand Rapids, as well as doing much more here in classroom instruction for first and second year medical students.

"We've explored and are exploring a number of arrangements," said Davis, who became dean of the MSU School of Human Medicine in May 2001.

"We would like an expanded relationship in Grand Rapids," Davis said. "And we'd like to have a full four-year program there."

If done properly, Grand Rapids could see medical education grow and evolve in the years ahead to the point where the community becomes the home base of a medical school, Breon said. The issue is one of timing and assuring that the right support structure and network is in place to support an expansion of medical education locally.

"This is a community with enough people and enough of a medical community, and I think a medical school is appropriate if done correctly. It's worthy for discussion," Breon said.

Discussing the idea is one thing. Actually pursuing it is another.

Creating the infrastructure for a medical school, with the professors, scientists and other academic and support staff needed for the first and second year academics, as well as the facilities and equipment required, is a "pretty involved and expensive" proposition, said Dr. Dave Baumgartner, vice president of medical affairs and director of medical education at Saint Mary's Mercy Medical Center.

That's why there's been few medical schools or campuses established in the U.S. in the last two decades, he said.

"The big question is could we support the first and second year of training here that requires a pretty big basic infrastructure?" said Baumgartner, a trustee at the Grand Rapids Medical Education and Research Center. "The finances of putting that together are rather daunting, although not impossible."

Baumgartner sees medical education expanding in Grand Rapids in the years ahead. A gradual evolution to where a complete medical program is offered in Grand Rapids is not out of the question.

"I could see it evolving to that," he said. "We already have a pretty good clinical base."

The idea of Grand Rapids serving as the home for a medical school is not a new one. Dick DeVos suggested the idea two years ago during the groundbreaking for Grand Valley State University's recently opened Cook-DeVos Center for Health Sciences, and there are some in the community who would like to see MSU move its medical school here.

In debating and weighing the question of expanding medical education locally, the needs of the medical community and greater community need to stay in the forefront, Breon said. Any expansion of medical education, he said, "has to fit in with our medical community."

"We have to take inventory of what we do well in this area and where are the gaps," he said. "Could it occur in this community? Absolutely, it could occur in this community."

But all agree that while a possibility, it wouldn't occur anytime soon. Davis said that offering or basing a full four-year medical program in Grand Rapids is something that will come about over several years.

"Anything that would be contemplated would be contemplated over a long period of time," Davis said.    

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