Med School Talk Heats Up

February 13, 2004
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GRAND RAPIDS — Setting the stage for what could come, and elevating the issue to the front burner, Michigan State University President Peter McPherson says broadening medical education in Grand Rapids is an issue the university must examine.

After years of informal talks with health-care leaders locally, McPherson plans on accelerating an assessment of increasing the presence of MSU’s College of Human Medicine in Grand Rapids — including the medical school’s relocation.

“It is important to emphasize that medical education is a central part of Michigan State, not only in East Lansing but around the state,” McPherson said last week during his annual State of the University address to faculty and students.

“To be sure, it is our expectation — yes, our mandate — to explore how medical colleges can better serve the state of Michigan,” he said. “A presence in Grand Rapids, whatever form that might take, is an opportunity we have to explore.”

McPherson’s decision to accelerate an internal assessment on relocating the medical school to Grand Rapids or expanding its presence here makes the issue a top priority for the university and will bring greater formality to discussions with local health-care executives that have been ongoing for years.

“In the weeks ahead, our assessment will be accelerated, and we will be talking with many experts in this region and throughout the state,” McPherson said.

Luring MSU to examine a broader role in Grand Rapids is a far broader and stronger clinical, research and education base that includes teaching hospitals Spectrum Health and Saint Mary’s Mercy Medical Center, and the Van Andel Institute, as well as a highly cooperative atmosphere between health-care providers and a generous philanthropic community, all of which combine to offer an attractive support structure for MSU’s College of Human Medicine.

“The community recognizes the importance of and supports medical education,” said Lody Zwarensteyn, president of the Alliance for Health in Grand Rapids. “So MSU would be walking into a community that would welcome it openly. The arms would be open.”

MSU does not have any specific time frame for completing the analysis, Vice President for University Relations Terry Denbow said. While relocating the medical school has received the lion’s share of attention, it is not the primary focus of the analysis, which will cover medical education in Grand Rapids “from A to Z and how we may approach an expansion of our medical school in Grand Rapids,” he said.

“The given is a desire to have an expanded presence in Grand Rapids,” Denbow said. “This is a very, very important and a very, very complex set of decisions.”

In accelerating the analysis, MSU is broadening it, not necessarily moving up the timetable for reaching a conclusion or decision, he said.

“Both the breadth and the depth of the discussions have been accelerated,” Denbow said.

To Grand Rapids, the benefits of MSU moving the medical school or at least expanding its role here are potentially huge.

For one, a medical school would help to accelerate job growth in the emerging health sciences economic sector that Grand Rapids is nurturing on the back of the Van Andel Institute and growing health-care providers such as Spectrum Health, said Birgit Klohs, president of the regional economic development group The Right Place Inc.

Part of the strategy for growing the health sciences sector in Grand Rapids is bringing more medical education to town, Klohs said.

“It would be a boon to the area. From an economic development standpoint, it’s something that would enormously help” health sciences in Grand Rapids, Klohs said. “Health sciences, I believe, will be one of the key drivers in job growth for the next 10 to 15 years. A medical school would push that growth exponentially forward.”

And according to a recent outlook, health care will continue to grow at a multiple of the U.S. economy over the next decade, potentially providing a far bigger economic sector for Grand Rapids to try to cut into in the years ahead.

At a projected $1.8 trillion, health-care spending alone will represent 15.5 percent of the U.S. gross domestic product in 2004. The Kaiser Family Foundation and the industry journal Health Affairs, in an outlook published last week, expect spending to grow to $3.4 trillion, or 18.4 percent of nation’s GDP, by 2013.

MSU’s College of Human Medicine presently sponsors 54 medical residents who receive their third and fourth years of clinical training at Spectrum Health and Saint Mary’s Mercy Medical Center.

Among the potential areas to expand in Grand Rapids is offering first- and second-year classroom courses locally, Denbow said.

Dave Baumgartner, vice president of medical affairs and director of medical education at Saint Mary’s Mercy Medical Center, welcomes MSU’s analysis. Talk of MSU’s medical school expanding its presence in Grand Rapids goes back decades, he said.

“We have a great relationship, and like any relationship it potentially changes over time. If they have an interest in expanding that relationship, we’re very open and look forward to discussions as to how that might happen,” Baumgartner said. “It’s going to be an interesting one to see play out.”

The relocation of MSU’s medical school to Grand Rapids is seen as a massive undertaking logistically and financially that would require the development of a broader support network. That’s why Baumgartner sees the College of Human Medicine’s presence in Grand Rapids growing incrementally over a period of years and initially focusing on building on what’s already in place here, rather than a quick relocation.

“This might be more evolutionary, rather than a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ kind of decision,” he said. “It would be an incremental change, rather than an overnight thing.”

But it wouldn’t occur without some resistance in Lansing, where political, community and business leaders have already united to keep MSU from uprooting the medical school.

In his State of the University address last week, McPherson indicated that MSU’s medical school would not completely abandon the Lansing area.

“Guiding us in our assessment is a promise to maintain our commitment to quality medical care and services in mid-Michigan,” he said.    

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