WMU Explores New Med School

February 8, 2008
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GRAND RAPIDS — Three Michigan colleges, including Western Michigan University, are marching ahead with studies and plans that could add medical schools to their offerings.

Just as Michigan State University and its local partners are launching a medical school expansion in Grand Rapids, WMU is hiring a consultant to review the idea of establishing a medical school at the Kalamazoo campus.

“This is not an arms race,” said Bob Miller, WMU’s associate vice president for community relations. “We look at the resources of Western Michigan in terms of our capability and research … and all of the resources that exist in our community in life sciences and health care, and if places like Central or Oakland have chosen to have this conversation, we certainly should have the conversation.”

Talk is turning into the first step of action with a visit last week by consultants Drs. Harry Jonas and Emery Wilson of DJW Associates in Lexington, Ky. Miller said the consultants, who help a medical school with accreditation and start-ups, were meeting with a committee of WMU and community leaders to assess the feasibility of a medical school in Kalamazoo. WMU paid for the visit, but Miller said the vision of WMU President John M. Dunn is for a private medical school that would operate outside of the university’s general fund.

Miller points to Kalamazoo’s long history with companies such as medical device maker Stryker Inc., Upjohn and the pharmaceutical companies that followed it, as well as Bronson Methodist Hospital and Borgess Hospital and the MSU Kalamazoo Center for Medical Studies, which hosts residency programs.

He said the committee was hoping the consultants “help us define a list of questions we will need to answer before we move forward.” The committee’s next move would be to develop a budget “for full-blown due diligence, a case for support, cost and how it’s funded in such a way that it will not impact university resources.”

In the meantime, Central Michigan University has appointed a committee, led by a consultant, to review its own proposal. CMU spokeswoman Heather Smith said the committee’s next report is expected in March.

“We are still in the process of exploring the feasibility of establishing a medical school. Basically, we are in Phase 2,” Smith said.

According to reports posted to the university’s Web site by President Michael Rao, CMU is working with consultant Dr. Michael Whitcomb of the Association of American Medical Colleges. The CMU Board of Trustees is exploring whether to start the university’s own medical school or to develop a program in conjunction with an existing medical school. Rao also has experience with higher education planning.

In his Web post, Rao cites three major challenges identified by Whitcomb: finding a suitable facility; funding for the planning process; and agreements with health care institutions to provide clinical placements for the future students. The next step includes connecting with those institutions and considering the academic needs, in particular the possibility of engaging with an existing medical school.

Oakland University is further ahead in its plan to establish a private medical school with partner Beaumont Hospitals, spokesman Ted Montgomery said, enrolling 50 students by 2010. Montgomery said the current plan is to use classrooms and laboratory space already on Oakland’s Rochester campus for the first two years, but construction of a building is possible. Health insurer Humana’s foundation has donated $100,000 to the planning effort.

The flurry of medical school proposals has been prompted by studies that predict a growing shortage of doctors just as the baby-boomer generation hits the Medicare stage. In 2006, a federal Department of Health and Human Services report estimated the U.S. would be short by 55,000 doctors by 2020.

Dr. Paul Farr, a Grand Rapids physician and past president of the Michigan State Medical Society, said funding and clinical placements are crucial issues for new medical schools. He said he thinks current doctors — especially the 23 percent who are 60 or over and considering retirement — support the idea of additional programs.

“You also have to have a community that’s very receptive,” Farr said. “For as long as I’ve practiced here, we teach on a voluntary basis. I feel strongly that medicine is better for it.”

But, Farr noted, the federal government has put the skids on funding for residency programs for medical school graduates.

Michigan has no private medical schools, but has four public ones: the University of Michigan, Wayne State University and two at Michigan State University. They are enrolling 3,200 students for the current school year, according to a December report from the Association of American Medical Colleges. Michigan has about 25,000 active doctors, and 44.7 percent of them graduated from in-state medical schools, the report stated.

Miller said the WMU committee is open to new ideas, such as limiting enrollment to Michigan residents or trying a new method of teaching.

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