Mark Washburn

Let’s make an industry of doctors

Paul Umbach, founder and president of Tripp Umbach, a Pittsburgh-based consulting group, shares his conclusions that Charlotte needs a four-year medical school.
Paul Umbach, founder and president of Tripp Umbach, a Pittsburgh-based consulting group, shares his conclusions that Charlotte needs a four-year medical school. dhinshaw@charlotteobserver.com

Charlotte is always reaching for something it has no business having.

We’re just not big enough to have NFL and NBA franchises, a stunning skyline, a booming jetport, a popular light-rail system and a vibrant center city.

Charlotte is just too big for its britches. Always has been.

Which is probably why you like it here. Despite its foundation rooted in cold, calculating business, it has always entertained, for some reason, people who dreamed outsize dreams and found ways to make them happen.

Not much blooms in the Piedmont’s red clay, it seems, except big ideas.

Last week’s big idea was about a medical school. A privately-financed study said we should get one.

Charlotte is the largest city in the land, the consultant says, without a major medical school. (Atlanta, a world-class city, has two, for those of you who keep track.)

That’s no reason we should get one. There are six major medical schools in the Carolinas, and we’ve got plenty to brag about already. We are the largest municipality in the nation, for example, to have a towering escalator installed at city expense in an NFL football stadium in exchange for not threatening to move the franchise to Los Angeles for a couple years.

Oh, and apparently we already have a medical school. After the study was released, a joint statement came from UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Carol Folt and UNC Charlotte Chancellor Philip Dubois and others reminding us of that.

Since 2010, a busload of medical students gets shipped here annually from Chapel Hill.

“Today, Charlotte has a medical school – the UNC School of Medicine,” they said, removing our dunce caps and patting us gently on our flat little heads.

“At least two dozen third- and fourth-year medical students from each class receive their clinical education in Charlotte.”

Well, sha-zam. You mean we’ve had a medical school here all along and never noticed?

No. We’ve had some students come over to hone their skills. That’s not a medical school. That’s missionary work.

A quarter of the doctors in North Carolina will be up for retirement by 2020, the consultant says, a startling fact both for those who provide health care and those who run golf courses. A real medical school here would mean a surge in physicians in the region.

And we’re not getting any smaller. Even through the punishing recession, Charlotte grew at a fantastic rate and is picking up speed once again.

Further, it would expand a sector of our economy that we need to continue to develop called brain power.

We just don’t attract tire plants or auto factories. Let’s push to manufacture knowledge. It’s self-sustaining and nonpolluting.

Although this isn’t a time state government is in a visionary mode – particularly in higher education – it’s exactly the right time to vigorously examine and debate the idea of a medical school in Charlotte.

Folt and Dubois rightly point out the university system has already made baby steps toward such a thing. Its foundation is laid.

To set it up would cost about $50 million. Too much? That’s a third of what an extension of the streetcar will run.

Ask your doctor if a Charlotte medical school is right for you. I suspect it is.

Washburn: 704-358-5007;

Twitter: @WashburnChObs.

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