WPAHS, Temple to form medical school

North Side campus to compete with Pitt

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Against a scenic backdrop showcasing both Allegheny General Hospital and the home of his planned new venture, West Penn Allegheny Health System President and CEO Christopher Olivia on Friday unveiled plans to bring a second four-year medical school program to Pittsburgh.

The goal of the Pittsburgh-based regional campus of Temple University's School of Medicine, Dr. Olivia said, is to educate and train more local students with the hope that the region will retain them when they are full-fledged physicians.

"We're not educating enough medical students," he told an audience comprised of political dignitaries, administrators, physicians, students and others at a media briefing in the David L. Lawrence Convention Center.

With the expected first class of 30 students enrolling in 2013, it could be eight years before students complete their medical education at the Temple University School of Medicine at West Penn Hospital and subsequent residencies.

And, despite Dr. Olivia's assurances that West Penn Allegheny has the funding for the program, the health system's ongoing financial woes could come into play. Based on its financial reports through the first three quarters of the current fiscal year, WPAHS is on pace to post an operational loss in excess of $60 million this year.

Spokeswoman Kelly Sorice said WPAHS estimates it will cost less than $10 million over four to five years for the initial renovation of the 40,000 square feet of space that has been rented on three floors at Four Allegheny Center, North Side, and recruitment of about a dozen faculty members. Beyond that, they expect the program will be sustained with tuition payments and fundraising efforts.

That could be an issue for the Liaison Committee on Medical Education, the national body that accredits medical schools. The organization has granted West Penn Allegheny preliminary approval to proceed with the program but will perform site visits before making a final decision on accreditation.

Dan Hunt, co-secretary for the committee and senior director for accreditation services for the Association of American Medical Colleges, said Friday that applicant schools must meet 129 wide-ranging standards for accreditation, including having adequate revenue sources.

"You have to have a diversity of streams of income, so if one goes down, you have other sustainable resources." If West Penn Allegheny plans to rely largely on tuition payments to fund the program, he said, "we'll probably bring that up in our conversations" with WPAHS officials.

"The standard, no matter if you're a regional campus or a brand-new school, is that you cannot run the medical education program solely on tuition. You have to have other funding sources."

Just this week, the Los Angeles Times reported University of California-Riverside officials said they had been denied preliminary accreditation to start a medical school due to concerns that budget problems might prevent the state from providing necessary funding.

Also looming in the foreground are discussions that West Penn Allegheny might be acquired by insurer Highmark, which is in stalled renegotiation talks with the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. Last week, state Sen. Jim Ferlo, D-Highland Park, said Highmark officials had told him they were making plans to buy West Penn Allegheny, dissolve the board and perhaps bring in an outside provider such as the Cleveland Clinic to run the health system.

Mr. Ferlo attended Friday's news conference but afterward wanted to focus on the new medical school and its benefit to the North Side community's redevelopment. "This is a great and glorious announcement, there's no doubt about it," he said.

Rich Fitzgerald, the Democratic nominee for Allegheny County executive, also called the news "another giant step forward for the region." While wanting to see UPMC's continued success, he said, "it's important that West Penn Allegheny is successful, too, that we have a choice."

This will be the second regional medical school campus launched this year for Temple. In January, the Philadelphia school announced it was opening a regional campus with St. Luke's Hospital and Health Network in Bethlehem, Northampton County, with its first class of 30 medical students starting this fall.

In that program, students spend their first year at the Philadelphia campus taking basic science courses, then spend the next three years at the Bethlehem campus. With the WPAHS program, students will stay in Pittsburgh all four years.

Ann Weaver Hart, president of Temple University, said the addition of the Bethlehem regional campus will increase the medical school's first-year enrollment from 180 students to 210 and the WPAHS campus will further increase the number to 240 in 2013.

"We believe that is a tremendously important contribution to the commonwealth," she said.

By comparison, Pitt's medical school has about 570 students total, according to its website. Last fall, 39 of Pitt's 148 first-year medical students were Pennsylvania residents.

Dr. Olivia said the formation of a four-year medical school fulfills a goal he's had since he took over at West Penn Allegheny.

For the last 10 years, Temple has been sending its third- and fourth-year medical students to West Penn Allegheny hospitals for clinical rotations. Now, that two-year program, which also involved Drexel University medical students, will be expanded into a four-year program with Temple.

He said they have set up early admission programs with Duquesne University and Washington & Jefferson College officials to identify and recruit talented students to the West Penn Allegheny program.

"We believe this new program will ultimately improve the scope and quality of health care in our region," said Dr. Olivia, who also was instrumental in establishing a new medical school at his previous position heading the Cooper Health System in Camden, N.J. Cooper Medical School at Rowan University, which plans to welcome its first class of students in September 2012.

In addition to the University of Pittsburgh Medical School, Pennsylvania is home to six other medical schools: Philadelphia-based programs at Temple, the University of Pennsylvania, Thomas Jefferson University and Drexel University; Penn State University College of Medicine in Hershey; and the Commonwealth Medical College in Scranton, which opened in 2009.

Also, Pennsylvania has two accredited medical schools specializing in osteopathic medicine:Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine and Lake Erie College of Osteopathic Medicine.

Steve Twedt: stwedt@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1963.


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