Cash Is Critical For GR Med School

April 9, 2004
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GRAND RAPIDS — Amid excitement over a Michigan State University report that lays the conceptual groundwork for developing a medical school in Grand Rapids within five years comes the reality of how to pay for it.

While MSU is keeping confidential the potential costs of expanding medical education in Grand Rapids, a report assessing the move makes it clear that without financial assistance, the new campus won't happen. Existing general fund and endowment capital is unavailable to finance the additional costs associated with the move, according to the assessment that outlines the future expansion of MSU's College of Human Medicine.

"The analysis indicates that substantial additional resources, of both recurring and one-time nature, will be required in West Michigan to accomplish the expansion," states the assessment that lays out an aggressive scenario for expanding medical education in Grand Rapids over the next five years.

The report envisions an expansion of the entire College of Human Medicine and states that MSU "should move decisively" toward establishing a full campus in Grand Rapids by 2009 through an alliance with Spectrum Health.

Spectrum Health continues to evaluate a possible affiliation with MSU and the cost implications involved, Chief Executive Officer Rick Breon said. A decision on an alliance could come in May.

The assessment on expanding the College of Human Medicine provides a framework to begin working out the details and elevates discussions that have been ongoing for years between MSU and Spectrum Health. It conceptually examines how a medical school would function in Grand Rapids and interact with other organizations.

"It's still a document at about 10,000 feet," Breon said. "There's still a lot of work that has to be done on how do you operationalize it."

And that work includes identifying the funding sources required for launching and sustaining a Grand Rapids campus for the College of Human Medicine.

"Clearly that's still a big nut to crack out there," Breon said.

Capital is needed to fund construction of facilities, finance new medical practice startups and research by faculty, and establish faculty-endowed chairs, as well as sustain operations in Grand Rapids. "These one-time capital requirements are essential for the establishment of a world-class medical school," the assessment states.

MSU issued the assessment report last week, one day after university administrators and business and community leaders in Lansing and East Lansing announced a deal to maintain a strong medical school presence in mid-Michigan, including growing the College of Osteopathic Medicine, as the College of Human Medicine expands in Grand Rapids.

In announcing that deal, MSU President Peter McPherson said, "expansion in Grand Rapids would only occur when there are sufficient funds required for components of that expansion."

If university trustees approve the concept when they meet next month, planning and transitioning for a Grand Rapids campus could begin as early as this July, with local classes for second-year students targeted to begin in the fall of 2006 and first-year medical classes beginning in 2007.

Grand Rapids is one of six communities across the state where the College of Human Medicine places medical students. More than 50 third- and fourth-year medical students in the College of Human Medicine now receive their clinical training at Spectrum Health and Saint Mary's Mercy Medical Center.

Expansion would raise the number of medical residents here and bring first- and second-year medical students to Grand Rapids. MSU expects the move to raise first-year medical school admissions from an average of 106 students to 120 students. The East Lansing campus would remain a four-year program for medical students "who have specific educational needs tied to the larger university."

After years of broad conceptual discussions about expanding medical education in Grand Rapids, Dr. David Baumgartner, vice president of medical affairs and director of medical education at Saint Mary's Mercy Medical Center, looks forward to seeing details begin to come together.

While he and others temper their enthusiasm because of the massive logistical and financial undertaking ahead, Baumgartner believes development of a medical school campus is doable.

"It's something that really can work with the community really getting behind it," he said. "There is a vision for excellence in this community that sees beyond the next year or two and to what can happen in the future. This is something we can make happen."

An expansion of medical education in Grand Rapids would have benefits for both MSU and the local community.

In Grand Rapids, MSU would benefit by linking with a large health system in Spectrum Health, which has nine hospitals in western Michigan, and a major research center in the Van Andel Institute. MSU also would have a greater ability to tap a generous philanthropic community in Grand Rapids for financial support.

To Spectrum Health, an affiliation with MSU's College of Human Medicine could help in recruiting physicians, especially sub-specialists, who also want to teach and conduct research.

The move also would play into ongoing efforts in Grand Rapids to build health care and life sciences into larger economic sectors in West Michigan.

"Grand Rapids collectively has a clear vision of what is possible to achieve. MSU has a unique opportunity to be a significant part of this promising West Michigan bio-medical future. The community is astutely aware that the missing link to synergize their full potential is a high quality, research-based medical school" the MSU assessment states.

"MSU should move decisively to capture the unique opportunity to expand its College of Human Medicine."

Adding a medical school to the mix of growing health-care providers like Spectrum Health and Saint Mary's Mercy Medical Center, the Van Andel Institute and a solid base of firms involved in research and production of medical equipment and pharmaceuticals could accelerate the emergence of the bio-science sector as a larger economic force in West Michigan.

"It obviously fits into the scheme very well," said Birgit Klohs, president of the regional economic development agency The Right Place Inc.

Like others, Klohs tempers the possibilities with knowledge that a medical school campus in Grand Rapids remains a concept at this point and "there's still work to be done" for it to happen.

"We need to understand and be very clear: There are some open issues here, even though it would be great," Klohs said.

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