Virginia Tech Magazine
Feature -|- Summer 2007

Vital sign: The new Tech-Carilion medical school
by Sherry Bithell

If you asked 100 people what they think life will be like in 2020, you would probably get 100 different answers. It's doubtful, however, that anyone's vision would include making a trip to the doctor's office only to learn that a physician isn't available that day--or for the next month.

This scenario isn't just a grim snapshot of the future--it's a cold reality for approximately 10 percent of Americans today. Physician shortages currently affect 30 million people in the United States, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC). Unless medical school enrollment increases by 30 percent, the association projects, the shortage will reach crisis status by 2020. Nonetheless, only half of existing U.S. medical schools are now considering expanding their enrollment, which has led the AAMC to call for more medical schools nationwide.

Helping to solve this growing problem will be the new Virginia Tech-Carilion medical school, a jointly operated, private school that will be located in downtown Roanoke, Va., adjacent to Carilion Roanoke Memorial Hospital. Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine has praised the initiative as vital in efforts to "meet the health workforce and medical research needs of our state, as well as to strengthen the economy of the region."

President Steger with Gov. Kaine and Dr. Murphy
Frontline medical research

Patterned after Harvard Medical School's Health Sciences and Technology program and Cleveland Clinic's Lerner College of Medicine, the new school will have a small class size of an estimated 40 students per year and its tuition will be comparable to that of other private medical schools. Because fewer than 2 percent of active physicians today are pursuing careers involving research, the new school will be dedicated to training physician researchers. Therefore, all students, in addition to following a traditional medical school curriculum, will learn research methods, conduct original research, and write a thesis.

To accommodate these expanded graduation requirements, the school will have a five-year curriculum instead of the traditional four.

President Charles W. Steger with Gov. Tim Kaine (center)
and Carilion CEO Edward G. Murphy

Students will have the option of earning a master's degree at the same time that they complete their medical training. This curriculum will also include elements that will position students to pursue a Ph.D.

The research aspects of the new school will allow Virginia Tech to expand several of its top research programs, including bioinformatics, computer science, and engineering, along with epidemiology, health services, basic sciences, and clinical research. Access to the medical school and research institute should help move Virginia Tech closer to its goal of becoming one of the country's top 30 research universities.

"Virginia Tech's nationally ranked research program and our close association with Carilion create a unique opportunity," notes Virginia Tech President Charles W. Steger. "We can create a respected medical education program that will not only enhance the overall research profile of the university but also improve the region's healthcare and generate economic growth."

A boost for the region

The new medical school will contribute to the region, the state, and the nation in several ways. In addition to helping solve the national shortage of physicians, the presence of a medical school on the Carilion Clinic campus will contribute to ongoing efforts to build a robust economic climate in downtown Roanoke. The school will be co-located, along with the future Virginia Tech-Carilion Medical Research Institute, near the Carilion Roanoke Memorial Hospital, the Jefferson College of Health Sciences, and the Roanoke Higher Education Center. (See rendering below.)

Rendering of the new medical school

Physician shortages in Appalachia are particularly pronounced, in part because of the area's aging physician population. Carilion CEO Dr. Edward G. Murphy believes that the new school "will make the area more attractive for doctors we're recruiting now and will increase the number of doctors who are likely to stay in the area after their medical training."

Additionally, the new school is expected to contribute to the area's economy. According to a 2002 AAMC study, every dollar spent by a medical school or teaching hospital creates an additional $1.30 in economic activity. Although most medical schools nationwide are tax-exempt, they generated $14.7 billion in state tax revenue in 2002. For example, it is estimated that the new Florida International University Medical School, which will open in 2008, will make an economic impact of $58 million during its first year of operation, a figure that is expected to grow to $1.1 billion after 20 years.

Although the school's financial plan is not yet finalized, Carilion and Virginia Tech are in a unique position to develop a cost-effective, financially self-sustaining school. One-time state funding may be sought to help build the school in the spirit of a public-private partnership, and Virginia Tech and Carilion will rely on current resources plus tuition to meet the new school's operating needs. It is anticipated that philanthropic gifts will fund future programs.

Charting a promising future

It won't be long before this exciting new venture is underway. Construction on the medical school and research building will begin in early 2008, with the school welcoming its inaugural class in 2009 or 2010, and the key academic infrastructure is already in place. Virginia Tech, for example, currently teaches most of the basic science courses needed for a medical school curriculum, while Carilion has supported medical education for more than 50 years and today sponsors seven medical residency programs with more than 100 full-time faculty physicians. Notably, students at the new medical school can take advantage of Virginia Tech's wide array of applicable world-class research.

The new medical school will join other successful Virginia Tech contributions to medical research, including the Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine, the Virginia Bioinformatics Institute, the university's collaboration with the Edward Via Virginia College of Osteopathic Medicine, and the Virginia Tech-Wake Forest University School of Biomedical Engineering and Sciences. By combining its strengths with Carilion's, Virginia Tech will once again forge a partnership designed to bolster research that will benefit the region, the state, and the nation.

"The combination of a medical college and research university affiliated with a major regional medical center is literally a once-in-a-lifetime chance," Steger notes. "Through the school, we can assist our region, have an impact on a looming social issue, and shape our future."

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