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Study to explore Sussex medical school potential

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Beebe Dr. Joyce Robert with patient medical school Sussex County

Physicians like Dr. Joyce Robert, director of Beebe Healthcare’s Family Medicine Residency, are needed to match a growing Sussex County population, which has led county leaders to commission a feasibility study of a medical school. | PHOTO COURTESY OF BEEBE HEALTHCARE

GEORGETOWN – A coalition of business leaders is spearheading a study of the feasibility of establishing a medical school in Sussex County.

The Sussex Economic Development Action Committee, a nonprofit that supports economic development in the southern county led by business and civic leaders, has commissioned a study from health care industry consultancy firm Tripp Umbach on whether an osteopathic medical school could succeed here.

Delaware is one of only four states that doesn’t have a medical school, but SEDAC’s interest is among new efforts that are underway to see whether one may be viable here.

In the last two years, top officials at Delaware State University and ChristianaCare quietly began preliminary discussions on how they may be able to offer medical degrees entirely in-state. For more than 50 years, Delawarean students have been able to earn medical degrees through a unique partnership between Thomas Jefferson University and state hospital systems through the Delaware Institute for Medical Education and Research (DIMER).

Twenty slots at Jefferson’s coveted Sidney Kimmel Medical College are held for Delawareans to help build a medical workforce here, and within the last two decades, the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine has also begun holding 10 slots as well.

While more than 1,200 physicians have graduated through the program over five decades, it requires students to attend classroom instruction in Philadelphia for at least two years at out-of-state rates. The average medical school student loan debt upon graduation is now about $240,000, and providing an in-state option could lower than burden.

The Sussex County effort was spurred in part by Beebe Healthcare President & CEO Dr. David Tam, who noted the need for a state medical school during comments at the 2021 Sussex County Today & Tomorrow Conference and later pulled together stakeholders about the viability of the idea, said Chris Weeks, co-chair of SEDAC’s Healthcare Committee.

SEDAC was chosen to lead the feasibility study to keep it impartial, and ultimately Beebe Healthcare, Bayhealth, TidalHealth and the Sussex County Council backed it, Weeks added.

It took less than 90 days for the organization to raise $100,000, including additional contributions from Highmark Blue Cross Blue Shield Delaware, the Carl M. Freeman Foundation, The Christian and Julie Hudson Family Foundation, Chesapeake Utilities, Delaware Electric Cooperative, and Fulton Bank, to fund the study.

The study by Tripp Umbach, which has completed such studies for more than 30 other medical school proposals and previously worked with Beebe Healthcare on its long-term planning, will involve data gathering, interviews with key stakeholders and financial analyses, producing organizational and operational options, timelines, and recommendations by the end of 2023.

“My heart and my gut say this is a great idea, but I’m also a businessperson. So, I need to see the data that says I’m not just thinking with my heart, but I’m thinking with my head,” said Weeks, who is an executive with the architectural firm Becker Morgan Group.

SEDAC is investigating an osteopathic medical school – which would produce DOs instead of MDs, a distinction more about how practitioners approach care than capabilities – because those graduates are more likely to become family physicians that Sussex particularly needs, Weeks said.

About a third of Delaware’s doctors are over the age of 60, putting health care on the precipice of a looming labor shortage just as its population is quickly growing, due in part to a boom of retirees moving to Sussex County beach communities. The state will not only need to address the physician retirement cliff, but actually add 177 doctors by 2030 to maintain current levels of care, according to a study by the Robert Graham Center.

“With the population growing in Sussex County is just going to exacerbate that problem, so we need to kind of start growing our own as soon as possible,” he said.

The addition of new physicians in the state would also create new economic development and health care savings, Weeks noted. According to the American Medical Association, each physician in Delaware creates an average of 11 direct jobs and generates $2.1 million in annual total economic impact. In addition, each primary care physician is responsible for $3.6 million in health care cost savings by avoiding the overuse of emergency room services and improving the population’s health status.

“For SEDAC, this isn’t just a health care concern but a jobs and economic development question too,” Weeks said.

Tam told Delaware Business Times that Beebe is “focused on building an integrated health care system to serve the people of Sussex County.”

“We must be bold in exploring how to grow our health care workforce to serve the fastest growing county of our state with a population with the greatest needs. It’s why I raised the vision of starting a medical school in Sussex County as an anchor for a multidisciplinary health education campus when presenting at the Sussex County Today & Tomorrow conference two years ago. Beebe is working in close collaboration with the SEDAC, other health systems, educational partners, and elected officials to move this project forward. We are proud to specialize in Sussex County,” he added.

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