Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center will establish a four-year medical school in Charlotte in conjunction with Atrium Health, the systems said in a statement Wednesday.
The campus will have the Wake Forest School of Medicine name, said Dr. Julie Ann Freischlag, the chief executive of Wake Forest Baptist and medical-school dean.
Freischlag said she will remain in Winston-Salem. Winston-Salem would gain scientific and analytics jobs, the systems said.
The goal is to complete an agreement later this year, with the new campus opening in 2021 or 2022.
“We will be one medical school with two sites,” Freischlag said. “Medical students will have their choice to be in Charlotte or Winston-Salem.”
The systems have signed a memorandum of understanding to begin exclusive negotiations. They did not disclose the potential cost of creating the medical school and didn’t say what kind of academic and support workforce would be required.
“We are eager to bring this shared vision for our future to life with Atrium Health,” Freischlag said.
“It’s incredible to think about the impact we can make, together, advancing patient-centered research, a next-generation curriculum and active population health analytics across our combined footprint,” Freischlag said.
The systems said the Charlotte medical school could educate nearly 3,200 students — including medical students, residents and fellows — across more than 100 specialized training programs each year.
“We will put faculty there, we will hire faculty and Atrium has faculty who can teach, particularly on the clinical side,” Freischlag said.
She said there will be some online video instruction involved.
There have been rumors of a Wake Forest Baptist-Atrium medical-school collaboration for more than a decade as Charlotte civic, elected and medical officials sought to fill a the void.
Wake Forest already has deep roots in the Charlotte area, first with its MedCost health benefits services company that it co-owns with Atrium, as well as the business and law school campuses there.
Freischlag said the partnership would benefit the Wake Forest Innovation Quarter in downtown Winston-Salem. More than $700 million in capital investments has been spent in local innovation quarter projects.
“We made it very clear that the research arm of this combination would remain in Winston-Salem,” Freischlag said. “Most everyone here likely will stay here.
“Atrium officials have expressed interest in putting some of their people here as they view the quarter as a fascinating think tank. We believe we will be able to grow our research here with increased employment opportunities,” she said.
Winston-Salem Mayor Allen Joines said Wake Forest officials have been told that Atrium will dedicate “millions of dollars” in federal research funds for Winston-Salem and the innovation quarter.
“This is positive news for the medical school because it can only accept a fraction of applicants in its current state,” Joines said.
Charlotte Mayor Vi Lyles said in a statement that the second medical school would benefit Charlotte socio-economically and in public health.
“We have been envisioning bringing a four-year school of medicine to Charlotte area for decades, and to witness the possibility of this becoming a reality is truly incredible,” Lyles said.
Atrium’s health-care system has nearly 14 million patient interactions each year across 42 hospitals and more than 900 care locations.
Wake Forest Baptist has 2.2 million patient interactions each year across seven hospitals and more than 400 care locations.
“This is an exciting prospect that will have positive state and national impacts in addition to benefiting the Charlotte and Winston-Salem communities,” said Nathan Hatch, the president of Wake Forest University.
“By strengthening medical education in Winston-Salem and bringing a medical school to Charlotte, we will open many doors for future health-care leaders and also play a nationally leading role in research,” Hatch said.
Eugene Woods, Atrium’s president and chief executive, said the proposed medical school represents the possibilities “when like-minded partners, committed to the same transformative vision, come together in new ways to better serve our patients and communities.”
Woods cited as an example Wake Forest medical school’s expertise in elder and geriatric care.
“Last year at Atrium Health, we cared for more than 350,000 patients over the age of 65, and by 2035, 1 in 5 U.S. residents will be over that age,” Woods said.
“Just imagine the powerful possibilities to advance modern medicine by linking breakthrough science directly with our patients in a way that significantly enhances their cognitive and physical functioning — and allows them to live independently for longer,” he said.
Other potential collaboration initiatives could involve cancer, children’s health, heart, musculoskeletal, cardiovascular disease, diabetes and obesity, neurosciences and regenerative medicine.
The systems said that together they could enhance their public-health efforts,
The collaboration would invest in a proposed translational research and population health center in Winston-Salem that would “draw from the experience and track record of CHESS (Cornerstone Health Enablement Strategic Solutions), the organizations’ population health services company.”
Atrium, then known as Carolinas HealthCare System, entered the Triad in June 2012 when Cone Health of Greensboro agreed to shift its management oversight to Carolinas for a 10-year period.
Both systems stressed that they were not merging and that Cone would remain independent and governed by its own board of trustees, which has been the case. Cone has paid an administrative fee to Carolinas.
The systems said they want to provide a broader range and more cost-effective services “through the sharing of best practices, access to health-care management experts and clinical quality teams.”
Having a second medical campus would enable the Wake Forest medical school to accept more applicants each year.
Currently, the medical school receives more than 10,700 applications for 145 Doctor of Medicine positions each year, along with applicants for physician assistants, certified registered nurse anesthetists and doctor of nursing practice.
Being associated with Atrium would provide more residency opportunities across the Atrium network,
The systems said the second medical school would “attract top medical education faculty to enhance innovative teaching methods and create new models of care, adding to the already 1,650 full-time and part-time faculty positions” at the Wake Forest medical school and within Atrium.
They said they would be able “to offer the largest post-graduate fellowship program for nurse practitioners and physician assistants in the nation,” as well as critical experience for medical-student education throughout an integrated academic health-care system.
Atrium has more than 1,000 active studies under way across more than 50 sites of care, and an active research portfolio that has grown nearly 40 percent over the previous two years.
No medical school
There have been on-and-off efforts to create a medical school at UNC Charlotte or at a UNC system school in Western North Carolina. Those efforts, though, would require securing funding from the N.C. General Assembly, which has been hesitant to make such a move.
The Atrium-Wake Forest announcement comes 19 days after UNCC Chancellor Philip Dubois said in a op-ed piece in The Charlotte Observer that he did not think the time was right for a public university-affiliated medical school.
In 2009, Atrium established a partnership with UNC School of Medicine for an accredited regional campus that served 25 to 50 medical students.
There was an extended attempt to merge UNC Health Care with Atrium during 2017 that ended unsuccessfully in March 2018.
Dubois described the expense of just operating the Atrium-UNC School of Medicine regional campus as a major obstacle.
“With respect to a medical school in Charlotte, the public and private funding challenges are simply insurmountable at this time to build a free-standing medical school,” Dubois wrote.
“In the meantime, to grow the physician workforce, residency slots should be added in disciplines we need. Physicians are more likely to stay in communities where they train for residency than they are to practice where they go to medical school.
“We leave it to future community and university leaders to assess when the constellation of conditions necessary for creation and support of a UNC Charlotte medical school make that opportunity.”
State Rep. Donny Lambeth, R-Forsyth, a former president of N.C. Baptist Hospital, said opening a second medical school “ is a very positive strategic move to expand the base for training of medical students, to enhance research options and to potentially increase funding from national sources, such as the National Institutes of Health.”
“It moves the reputation of the Medical school to a higher level in the nation, which is important to attract the best doctors and students to the school. I applaud the Board and leadership for taking this bold step to position the medical school and medical center into the future,” Lambeth said.