Seeing the more than $700 million of capital investment in Wake Forest Innovation Quarter makes a transformational relationship more believable for key Atrium Health executives and board directors.

Members of Atrium’s board of commissioners, led by chief executive Eugene Woods, and the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Hospital Authority’s board of advisers spent four hours Wednesday touring Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center facilities.

The boards visited Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine and Bowman Gray Center for Medical Education within the innovation quarter. They heard brief presentations from 10 research and informatics groups.

“It’s incredible what you have built here and what you have in motion,” said Edward Brown III, Atrium’s chairman. “If we don’t take advantage of this opportunity, we’ve blown it.

“We’re confident that the leadership team here (in Winston-Salem) and in Charlotte will be able to take the best from both systems for the upmost benefit of both of our communities.”

It was the boards’ first formal visit since Atrium and Wake Forest Baptist announced April 10 they had signed a memorandum of understanding “to create a next-generation academic health-care system.”

Highlighted in the potential partnership is the opening of a second Wake Forest School of Medicine campus in Charlotte — a long-sought goal of Atrium officials and Charlotte civic and elected officials.

Although the groups have not set a deadline for formalizing a collaborative agreement, the goal is to debut the Charlotte medical school campus in 2021 or 2022.

The open-ended nature of negotiating a potential medical partnership between Wake Forest University and Atrium has raised concerns about the future of Wake Forest Baptist and its medical school in Winston-Salem.

Atrium said in an April 10 statement that the signing “signals the very beginning of in-depth discussions regarding the specific details of what our coming together could ultimately become.”

The groups said in a question-and-answer post April 10 that “the goal is that upon signing a definitive agreement together, Atrium Health, Wake Forest Baptist Health and Wake Forest University will immediately convene a team to start the work of bringing a modern, innovative, cost-effective and sustainable top-20 school of medicine to the Charlotte area.”

However, the groups have not ruled out a much larger collaboration during their period of exclusive negotiations.

Carol Lovin, Atrium’s chief integration officer and system chief of staff, described the two systems’ discussions as being in the “third inning” toward “maximizing the impact on patient lives.”

“Every board member who came today found the facilities here incredible,” Lovin said. “They were blown away, which was the reaction we wanted them to have.”

Atrium’s desire for an academic medical school was first whetted through its attempt to merge with UNC Health Care that ended unsuccessfully in March 2018.

“We’re excited about the possibilities of having an academic medical center as a partner for discoveries and research that lead to the bedside,” Lovin said.

She said the UNC Health Care experience helped Atrium learn “which boxes to check” in the exploration stages.

Wake Forest Baptist has said the medical school board and management would remain in place and that the medical school and main campus would remain in Winston-Salem.

Dr. Julie Ann Freischlag, chief executive of Wake Forest Baptist and medical school dean, said April 10 that she and the majority of the existing medical school faculty would remain in Winston-Salem, and that the Charlotte medical school would gain new faculty and utilize providers within the Atrium hospital system.

The local concern about the Charlotte campus is that it could eventually draw resources from the Winston-Salem campus or even lure the medical school itself from Winston-Salem. Wake Forest Baptist is the largest employer in Forsyth County with more than 13,000 workers.

Baptist officials have said such scenarios were speculative and not based in fact.

Terry Williams, chief strategy officer for Wake Forest Baptist, said Wednesday the more that system officials discuss strategic opportunities, the more “we see common connections that we believe will help form a good alliance that’s mutually beneficial.”

Williams said the systems are still in the evaluation process with each other. 336-727-7376 @rcraverWSJ

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