Health & Family

Consultant: Charlotte needs 4-year medical school

Paul Umbach On Charlotte Medical School

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A Pittsburgh health care consultant has confirmed what many in Charlotte have said for years: The largest U.S. city without a four-year medical school needs one.

Paul Umbach, founder and president of Tripp Umbach consulting firm, shared his conclusions Wednesday with about 50 health care and business leaders, explaining that educating students locally is critical to retaining physicians for the Charlotte region and for other parts of the state where doctors are already in short supply.

After evaluating five scenarios, Umbach said the fastest and best way to develop a four-year school is through “a public partnership” between the existing UNC School of Medicine-Charlotte Campus and UNC Charlotte.

The Charlotte campus of the UNC-Chapel Hill medical school was created in 2010 at Carolinas Medical Center, the flagship hospital of Carolinas HealthCare System. About 25 students arrive each year for their third year of medical school and stay through the fourth year, according to Dr. Mary Hall, associate dean of the Charlotte campus. Other medical students rotate through various hospital services, bringing the total number of students on campus to about 300 in the past year, Hall said.

UNCC has health science programs but no medical school. Umbach said a new medical school could initially operate under the auspices of UNC-Chapel Hill but should eventually get separate accreditation through UNCC.

Umbach said the next step is to answer questions such as how much it will cost, where the school will be located and how it will be funded. If a business plan is completed by January, Umbach predicted the first medical school class could be admitted in fall 2018.

In addition to more medical students, he said the region needs expanded residency programs “to meet current and future workforce needs in one of the nation’s fastest-growing metropolitan areas,” Umbach said.

Carolinas Medical Center has trained medical residents since the 1940s. Today, it has 295 residents and fellows in more than 30 specialty areas and about 300 faculty doctors. Carolinas HealthCare, which owns CMC, also owns NorthEast hospital in Concord, which has 25 physicians in residency and fellowship programs.

A partnership between UNC and UNCC would be the “most feasible and cost effective way to ensure a quality health care workforce and economic development for the region” and “has the potential to better engage the state legislature” and philanthropic organizations for financial support, according to Umbach’s report.

The feasibility study was commissioned by a group of Charlotte health care and business leaders, called the Charlotte Medical Education Expansion Commission, led by Dr. Richard Reiling, a retired Novant Health executive. Others included OrthoCarolina CEO and former Mecklenburg County commissioner Dr. Daniel Murrey, former Superior Court Judge Chase Saunders, Drs. James Boyd and Marshall Silverman, retired businessman Tom Gillespie and the Rev. Marty McCarthy.

More than half of the $225,000 cost for the study and business plan was donated by Dale Halton, former president of Pepsi Cola Bottling Co. who has given huge sums to UNCC and Central Piedmont Community College.

After Umbach’s presentation, Magdy Attia, dean of the college of science, technology, engineering and mathematics at Johnson C. Smith University, encouraged organizers to include “contributions of other universities in the area” as part of a medical school. Noting that his school will soon open a $35 million science center, he said, “There is a big resource now in the community of Charlotte.”

Umbach said collaboration with all of Charlotte’s institutions of higher education should be part of the plan. He said he had visited the Johnson C. Smith campus, and Reiling said he’s spoken with the presidents of Davidson College and Queens University of Charlotte. They also said doctors and hospitals from both Carolinas HealthCare and Novant Health would be involved in the future school.

After the meeting, leaders of Carolinas HealthCare, UNC-Chapel Hill, UNCC and UNC School of Medicine issued a joint statement that seemed to suggest reluctance to move too quickly away from the branch campus model in Charlotte. It said UNC School of Medicine-Charlotte Campus “is a major part of academic medicine in North Carolina” and “whatever steps are taken in medical education in Charlotte in the future should build on this strong foundation.”

“In the long term and dependent upon significant amounts of state funding, we can envision a time when UNC Charlotte would become increasingly involved in providing certain parts of the UNC School of Medicine medical education curriculum for first- and second-year medical students,” the statement said.

Hall, who heads the Charlotte campus, said she appreciated being invited to Wednesday’s meeting and “being part of the conversation,” but she doubted that a four-year school, independent of UNC-Chapel Hill, could be developed as quickly as the consultant projected. Initially, the Charlotte campus was approved for 50 students a year, but the legislature put that on hold because of budget constraints. Hall said Carolinas HealthCare covers much of the cost of educating the Charlotte medical students.

In response to the joint statement, Umbach and Reiling said waiting for money from the state legislature won’t get the job done.

“From my experience, medical schools expand and grow when communities support their growth and expansion,” said Umbach, whose firm has helped develop multiple medical schools in cities such as Phoenix, Miami and Scranton, Pa. “To say, ‘We’ve asked for state funding and we haven’t gotten it,’ is not enough. … Only communities that want medical schools get medical schools.”

Reiling said he hopes the Tripp Umbach study will “get the citywide discussion moving” and attract capital from donors or philanthropic organizations. He estimated it will cost $50 million to start and $35 million a year to operate.

“The community has to come together and say ‘This is what we have to have.’… This would be a great way to get your name on a medical school.”

Garloch: 704-358-5078

Other findings in the report:

▪ Doctors are most likely to practice in the area where they complete their residency training. “Finding a way to have more students originate and complete their full medical education in the Charlotte region will secure a much larger physician base … to locate in the area and begin practicing.”

▪ A quarter of North Carolina physicians will be retiring in the next five years. At the same time, Charlotte is seeing steady population growth, and “all of these new residents will need primary care services, and the current physician supply will not be enough.”

Source: Tripp Umbach feasibility study

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