The looming threat of a physician shortage has hospitals throughout the Greater Lehigh Valley region and beyond on their toes and thinking ahead.
A 2018 study by the Association of American Medical Colleges shows that there could be a nationwide shortage of between 42,600 and 121,300 physicians by the end of the next decade.
To deal with the potential shortfall, area hospitals are forging ahead in much the same way they’ve dealt with other issues from pharmaceutical costs to supply chain logistics: They’re solving the problem themselves.
The solution for many of the region’s larger health networks has been to, in essence, make their own doctors by establishing medical schools on their campuses.
The health networks have a lofty goal, hoping the schools will increase the number of physicians in the community; improve the quality of health care and benefit the overall well-being of the communities they serve.
The first hospital in the region to act was St. Luke’s in Bethlehem, which became St. Luke’s University Health Network in 2011 when it partnered with the Lewis Katz School of Medicine at Temple to create the Lehigh Valley’s first regional medical school campus. It trains 120 medical students annually in its four-year program with the first year spent at Temple and then three years at the hospital’s main campus.
Allentown-based Lehigh Valley Health Network began partnering with the University of South Florida’s Morsani College of Medicine to give practical education to the school’s third and fourth year students at network hospitals. The first 15 students arrived in Allentown in 2013. In 2019 it has 100 total medical students in its program.
Tower Health is throwing its hat in the ring, with a bold move to open a new Reading satellite campus of Drexel University’s School of Medicine in Philadelphia.
The health network’s plan is ambitious: creating a four-year medical school that will train up to 200 medical students per year in a building that will be constructed near the network’s flagship Reading Hospital campus for classes starting in 2020.
It will have 40 medical students in each year for four years. In addition it will bring in 20 third-year and 20 fourth-year students from Drexel’s Philadelphia campus.
Unlike similar programs around the country, where students spend only part of their medical school years in a hospital environment, Tower will have students on the Reading campus for the full four years.
Part of that decision comes down to the numbers, Ahern said.
“It’s important for us to train residents and fellows,” Ahern said.
And, he notes physician retention, a major goal of such an initiative, is likelier the longer a medical students stay in the program.
“About 30 percent of residents and fellows stay in within the hospital programs and in the community,” he said. “When you have students and residents that number grows to 40 percent.”
Ahern said the more students who stay in the greater Berks region the better. Physicians won’t just benefit Reading Hospital, but the five other hospitals in the Tower Health Network, as well as other smaller hospitals, surgical centers and private practices in the area.
More than numbers
Dr. Robert Barraco, Lehigh Valley Health Network’s chief academic officer, said the plan at LVHN is to do more than just fill positions with physicians – the Lehigh Valley doesn’t have as severe a physician recruiting problem as more rural areas in the region, like parts of Berks.
It’s also an attempt to breed a generation of doctors with the values and skills that the health network feels are most important.
Barraco said the hospital wants a generation of doctors with skills in decision-making, communication and leadership.
“We can teach them the things we want them to learn and to learn the things we value,” Barraco said.
With the first of the program’s students just now graduating and the first few joining the health network’s residency program, Barraco said he thinks the partnership is bearing fruit – and that residents are demonstrating the soft skills the medical school is hoping to instill.
“We’re perceiving that there is a difference in these students,” he said. “They’re impressive.”
St. Luke’s has also seen success with its medical school program.
St. Luke’s has just been named one of the nation’s 100 Top Hospitals in the Major Teaching Hospital category by IBM Watson Health, a health care data analytics firm, for the fifth year in a row and seven times overall.
St. Luke’s also said that it having a medical school program in Bethlehem has helped the Lehigh Valley avoid the physician shortages that have already begun plaguing other parts of the state.
Part of the plan
At Tower, Ahern said adding a medical school is a tremendous undertaking for the health network, but one that makes sense.
“It is a cultural shift for us moving into academics,” he said.
But it’s also part of a larger shift the health network has been undertaking to become more self-sufficient and to be able to better control care and costs across its continuum of services
Other parts of the network’s plan include opening a children’s emergency room, launching its own home health care service and creating its own health insurance.
“We’re putting these pieces in place so we can offer better care,” Ahern said. “None of these is a one-off. In an integrated health care delivery system, they’re all synced.”
As much as the med-school programs benefit the Lehigh Valley and greater Reading, said Dr. Daniel Schidlow, senior vice president of medical affairs for Drexel University, partner universities also gain a great deal from such partnerships, which is part of the reason they’re gaining in popularity.
Drexel’s partnership with Tower, Schidlow said, is creating many benefits.
First, it’s allowing the school to accept more medical students.
Currently Drexel’s School of Medicine accepts 260 students out of 14,000 applicants each year. With the satellite campus in Reading the school will be able to accept 40 more students each year, bringing the complement up to 300.
It will also allow the medical school to provide its students with a different sort of education. Reading Hospital, where many of the students will train, has the unique advantage of being in a densely populated urban center in the middle of a highly rural area.
This will give the students exposure to a diverse range of patients.
In Reading, the Tower Health/Drexel project is more than just about the health of the community, Ahern noted.
“It’s part of the overall vitality of the community,” he said.
The 200,000-square-foot medical school will be built in an area targeted for economic redevelopment about a half mile from Reading Hospital in the Knitting Mills redevelopment, a $70 million office and retail complex being constructed at the site of what was formerly known as the VF Outlets.
The medical school won’t just bring an educational resource but will help the local economy by bringing in 200 new students as well as faculty and staff who will be looking for housing, goods and services.
“We want to be an economic engine to the community,” he said.