Spectrum Mulls MSU Relationship

January 30, 2006
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GRAND RAPIDS — Spectrum Health wants to create a relationship with Michigan State University’s West Michigan Medical School that will have real longevity.

“We want them to help us in our focus on increasing our research capabilities, and we think there could be some real value in attracting people who have both clinical and research talent to this area,” said Spectrum Health President Richard Breon.

Spectrum is currently trying to figure out just how much financial support it might be able to provide the medical school, both for its establishment and ongoing operation.

“We’re actually putting together a business plan that looks at what value it brings, what it means to us and how much are we going to have to put in to it that we can afford,” Breon said. “We are sitting down and working with MSU on our arrangement. Our focus right now is what is going to be our relationship, how it’s going to work, and what sort of monies are going to be needed.”

It wouldn’t make sense for Spectrum to simply open up its checkbook to help fund a med school in West Michigan, said Spectrum Health CFO Michael Freed.

“I think the business community would be worried if what we’re doing was just writing a check with no accountability on the back end,” Freed noted. “What we’re doing is staying very focused on how we would meet the kind of objectives we want to achieve without this being something that’s going to just pour more cost into the health care system to pay for it. We’ll do like any business does: We’ll get a business plan together that outlines what we think we can do and we’ll get some agreement with MSU that it works for them.”

Denise Holmes, assistant dean of government relations and outreach for MSU’s College of Human Medicine, said the expectation is that the MSU medical school would get some form of financial support in the form of a long-term contractual relation or business plan with Spectrum, Saint Mary’s Health and the Van Andel Institute.

“We would consider it an ongoing investment in the medical school; the amount could change over time as the need changes,” she explained. “We have not reached the stage of discussions with any of those organizations to have firm commitments or figures yet.”

Breon said Spectrum is in the process of searching for a vice president of research for medical education. He anticipates clinical and research collaborations with MSU, possibly in the areas of cardiovascular, oncology and pediatric research. He foresees a lot of potential for National Institutes of Health research grants, as well as research funding by industry.

“A lot of reports say we’re talking about $10 million worth of outside research in 10 years,” he said. “We’re trying to figure out in the business plan what kind of monies we’re going to have to contribute to get to that.

“What you have to do is pick out a handful of two or three or four research specialties, build that kind of reputation, recruit those kinds of clinicians and researchers, focus on that kind of research, do the clinical trials, and become the ‘go to’ place. But that’s something that takes a while.”

It also will take a while for the med school’s full economic benefit to be realized, he believes. Some people think the medical school is going to generate millions of dollars for the local economy in just a few years, but that’s a pipedream in Breon’s estimation. He said its economic impact won’t be realized for 10 to 20 years, but by then it could be significant.

A more immediate benefit might just be the people whom the med school and its related research opportunities attract to town.

A study released last July by the Michigan State Medical Society predicted a shortage of nearly 6,000 physicians in the state 14 years from now. The study indicated Michigan’s supply of active physicians is likely to remain relatively flat during the next 14 years, fluctuating between 30,000 and 30,500 actively practicing physicians, but it’s projected that 36,200 physicians will likely be needed by 2020.

Breon said about 275 physicians are presently being trained in Spectrum residency programs through the Medical Education Research Center, and the hope is to keep those people here.

“The physician shortage is very real in certain areas,” he said. “Right now in certain specialties it’s a problem — it’s very difficult to get radiologists or cardiologists, for instance. In particular, with pediatric sub-specialists, we almost always have to hire those people. When they have 10 different offers, we have to compete as a community and we have to compete as an organization. That’s why the relationship with the medical school is important. Some of these people do like to teach — they like to be a professor at a university — so we’ll have that to offer, as well, to differentiate us from everybody else.”

The Michigan Department of Community Health announced Jan. 18 that it’s creating a health care work-force center that will coordinate state efforts to address physician work-force challenges of the near future.

Janet Olszewski, the agency’s director, said the center will be used to develop a single point of entry into state government to coordinate efforts to recruit and retain physicians in Michigan over the next decade.     

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