Fresh Med School Start Sought

October 1, 2004
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GRAND RAPIDS — Amid anticipation of the upcoming results from an independent analysis, and the possibility that the costs are much more than originally estimated, Saint Mary's Health Care is calling for a "fresh start" in discussions on the proposed relocation of much of MichiganStateUniversity's medical school to Grand Rapids

Feeling largely left out of deliberations, Saint Mary's Health Care directors want to see a broader and more public planning process on the medical school's move than what has occurred to date, a process that has mostly involved talks between MSU and Spectrum Health on an affiliation agreement.

The question comes down to formulating a collaborative plan among several key players to ensure that the expansion of medical education in Grand Rapids is done in ways that are needed, affordable and sustainable, and play into West Michigan's existing clinical and educational base.

"What is it we really want in a medical school as a community? We really haven't had that discussion," said David Baumgartner, m.d., vice president of medical affairs and director of medical education at Saint Mary's Health Care.

Saint Mary's Health Care's board of director last week adopted a position statement on MSU's proposal to relocate much of the College of Human Medicine to Grand Rapids over a 10-year period.

While supporting the concept and potential "overwhelmingly positive development for the community," Saint Mary's directors believe that a local medical school "can be successful and sustainable only if structured appropriately, built on a solid business model, organized around the existing strengths of the local health care and educational systems, and pursued in a truly open and collaborative fashion, both among all of the key parties in Grand Rapids and between Michigan State University and the Grand Rapids community," states the position statement.

And in a Sept. 8 letter to Grand Rapid Mayor George Heartwell, Saint Mary's Health Care President and CEO Phil McCorkle said he's concluded that MSU's proposal "is neither financially viable nor well-matched with the strengths and long-term best interests of the Grand Rapids community." His letter called for a "fresh start" in the dialogue over the MSU College of Human Medicine, which is struggling financially.

The position statement and McCorkle's letter makes public what many have been quietly asking in Grand Rapids in recent months: Is MSU's College of Human Medicine the "right" medical school for Grand Rapids

Saint Mary's Health Care takes the position that discussions thus far have not explored whether the MSU College of Human Medicine is the right match for what Grand Rapids needs.

"If we had engaged in a more open type of discussion with Grand Rapids as a community, you would have a fuller and richer discussion and you might also not cut yourself off in other opportunities out there," Baumgartner said. "We've got a lot of resources in this community. If we can work together on this, we can make better use of those resources."

The position of Saint Mary's Health Care, which accommodates one-third of the College of Human Medicine students who do their medical residencies and clinical training in Grand Rapids, comes as anticipation builds about the results of a study analyzing the potential economic impact and costs of MSU's proposal.

The completion of the study by Deloitte & Touche, originally expected by Labor Day, has been pushed back to mid-October. The study was commissioned by a loose-knit group of political, business and health-care leaders in Grand Rapids that Heartwell assembled following the decision in May by the MSU Board of Trustees to endorse a plan to develop a full, four-year medical school campus in Grand Rapids over the next decade.

Deloitte & Touche was to analyze MSU's conceptual proposal, the associated $309 million cost, and conduct an economic impact study. Grand Action Committee is paying for the study.

Sources indicate the study will show MSU's cost estimates are too low and that the cost of the move would actually be much higher.

Heartwell last week was unable to offer specifics on the costs the study will show, but said, "I believe we're going to see something higher than what MSU suggested, but until we see the report I don't know."

Beyond the costs, Heartwell anticipates the Deloitte & Touche report will show a potentially "huge" economic impact associated with the move.

"The numbers that we're going to see are going to blow our hair back," he said. "It'll have the potential to be enormous for the community."

Speaking in Grand Rapids last week during Grand Rapids Magazine's 2004 Medical Hall of Fame induction, MSU President Peter McPherson framed the planned move of the College of Human Medicine in economic development terms. The placement of a medical school in Grand Rapids is "the most obvious option" to bolster and sustain a struggling West Michigan economy, McPherson said.

The recession hit West Michigan harder than most regions, in terms of lost manufacturing-related jobs, and the area should consider its alternatives, he said.

Information technology and electronics, while strong locally, can't carry an economy like the medical field can, McPherson said. He pointed to the quality delivery of medical care already in place in Grand Rapids and the "twin of that," the Life Sciences Corridor, which also is picking up steam in terms of research and development.

"A medical school, especially if it is research-oriented, is a good bridge to that," he said.

West Michigan has good hospitals, good physician care and a strong educational base afforded by schools like GrandValleyStateUniversity, McPherson said.

"What you don't have is the medical school. This is the kind of draw that will get you people from all over the world," he said.

McPherson said he was "constrained" in his remarks because he didn't want to say too much before the Deloitte & Touche feasibility study was made public.

But he did claim that Grand Rapids is the largest city in the country not served by a medical school and the resulting void is affecting more than just the residents. The Van Andel Institute would benefit from a medical school that does "a great deal of research," he said.

"And medical schools help recruit faculty and research (funding). We at MichiganState can see where a medical school can work wonderfully here," McPherson said.

The MSU president reiterated that he's happy with the current medical school in Lansing, but said the university is known for being at the forefront of development in all facets of education and he wants to keep it that way.

"I think we can take that next leap … here," he said.

MSU's proposal hinges on securing an affiliation agreement for the medical school with Spectrum Health, which wants to assure that such an alliance wouldn't add to the health system's costs.

Managing editor Tim Gortsema contributed to this story.

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