Campbell University is steaming forward with a plan to open the first new medical school in North Carolina since the 1970s, investing $60 million at its Buies Creek campus to graduate 150 doctors of osteopathic medicine a year.
The private Baptist university, which has a pharmacy school and recently began training physician assistants, aims to break ground on a classroom building this fall and enroll its first medical students by 2013.
If all goes according to plan, the new school would be the state's second-largest medical school in enrollment, behind UNC-Chapel Hill and ahead of Duke, Wake Forest and East Carolina universities.
"We think this is a perfect time to be starting a medical school," said Dr. John M. Kauffman Jr., founding dean of the new college.
Kauffman noted that the N.C. Institute of Medicine, a health policy group, predicts a serious shortage of doctors in North Carolina over the next 20 years, as the population grows and ages while many current doctors retire. In addition, health care reform is likely to add pressure for more primary care physicians.
Campbell's plan comes at a time when efforts to expand enrollments at the state's two public university medical schools have been stalled or significantly curtailed.
Before the economy tanked, lawmakers approved plans to add 40 students at ECU's Brody School of Medicine, and 80 at UNC-CH. But they didn't provide funds.
As a result, ECU has had to put its expansion on hold, while UNC-CH has scaled back plans for satellite doctor-training programs in Charlotte and Asheville. It's adding 10 students this year and another 10 in 2012 at the outlying programs, which rely on significant investments by partner hospitals in both cities.
Adding students beyond that, however, would require an infusion of taxpayer dollars, which looks unlikely in the foreseeable future, said Dr. William Roper, dean of UNC-CH's medical school and chief executive officer of UNC Health Care System.
Filling a rural void
As a private university, Campbell has no such concerns. Using savings, donations, loans and other funds, the university is working to clear accreditation hurdles and begin building an 85,000-square-foot classroom complex that will anchor its medical school - North Carolina's first to train doctors of osteopathy.
The discipline is equivalent to the allopathic medicine taught at the state's other medical schools.
While doctors of osteopathic medicine must complete a similar rigorous curriculum and adhere to the same practicing standards as traditional MDs, they focus on the musculoskeletal system as the center of the body's healing powers.
DOs, as they're called, are also more inclined to practice primary medicine, rather than pursue specialties.
That tendency will be cultivated at Campbell, said Kauffman, the medical school dean. He said the new school's mission will be to mint generalists who will practice in rural communities, which have long had difficulty attracting doctors.
The school will also recruit from rural areas.
"Part of our strategic plan will be to bring students from North Carolina, especially rural and underserved areas, and train them here at the medical school and send them back into communities for residency training," Kauffman said, noting that students who hail from rural settings are more inclined to return.
So, what's the cost?
That goal, however, could be impaired by the new school's projected tuition. Kauffman said Campbell hasn't set its rate, but it will be "comparable to other medical schools in the state."
In-state tuition for medical schools at state-funded UNC-CH and ECU runs about $13,000 a year, but private schools like Campbell charge more. Duke's medical school tuition is $44,000 and Wake Forest's, $41,000.
The massive debt medical students incur often deters them from pursuing lower-paying medical fields, including primary care.
Despite the cost, medical schools continue to draw strong interest, and turn down thousands more applicants than they accept.
Campbell officials said they are confident that they will be able to fill the slots they're creating, and have heard no sniping from other medical schools about encroaching in the market.
"It's been a quiet response," said Jerry M. Wallace, president of Campbell.
Roper, at UNC-CH, said he "wished them all the best in their efforts."
Dr. Paul R.G. Cunningham, dean and senior associate vice chancellor for medical affairs at ECU's Brody School, welcomed Campbell's mission.
"The desire to increase primary care physicians in any part of the country is a laudable goal," Cunningham said.
That reaction is in marked contrast to the rancor in the 1970s that accompanied the creation of ECU's medical school, which many doctors and state leaders blasted as an unneeded interloper. The school has long since garnered appreciation and admiration, but the early controversy stung.
Campbell's effort, while ambitious for the number of students, may present less of a competitive challenge because it does not add new clinical or research infrastructure. There is no hospital affixed to the school or massive new investment in basic scientific research.
Its main building, estimated to cost $39 million, will consist of classrooms and teaching laboratories.
To train its medical students, Campbell is forging partnerships with about 12 community hospitals throughout the state, including WakeMed in Raleigh and Johnston Medical Center-Smithfield. The hospitals will serve as live classrooms for Campbell's third- and fourth-year medical students.
Hospitals as classrooms
They and other hospitals will also provide the usual residency programs and internships required after med school graduation.
"In the traditional university model, medical schools tend to be located in urban areas with large medical centers," Kauffman said. "Our model is to work with community hospitals to train physicians in communities where there are needs, and spread out from those clinical campuses and target the underserved areas of the state."
William K. Atkinson, chief executive officer of WakeMed Health and Hospitals in Raleigh, said the partnership with Campbell is a logical extension of the hospital's current role as a teaching site for both UNC-CH and ECU students.
"There's room for everybody," Atkinson said.
He said he was well-acquainted with osteopathic medicine after working in Denver for several years, where the discipline has a longer history. He said Campbell's foray into the field is part of a broader trend of expansion for DO programs.
Kauffman, who began as Campbell's medical school dean this month, was hired from an osteopathic medical school in Blacksburg, Va., that graduated its first class in 2007.
"We see this as a tremendous opportunity to partner with community hospitals across North Carolina to provide for their work force into the future ... and provide for the needs of the state," Kauffman said.
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