Cooperation needed

Published 9:00 am Wednesday, February 27, 2008

By Staff
to train more doctors
They may be fierce competitors on the athletic field, but East Carolina University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill are proving to be solid allies when it comes to health care.
It didn’t use to be that way. In the 1960s, a group of leaders from eastern North Carolina had the guts to say that a medical school should be established in Greenville. Their reason then and the reason today is to train doctors to serve areas of the state that are lacking in medical services.
It wasn’t until 1974 that the General Assembly appropriated the money to establish the medical school at ECU. The marching orders from lawmakers were simple. Raleigh wanted the ECU medical school to increase the supply of primary-care physicians, to improve the health status of residents in eastern North Carolina and to enhance the access of minority and disadvantaged students to a medical education.
We believe the Brody School of Medicine has fulfilled all three of those goals.
UNC has its own fine history. The first university-sponsored school of medicine was established in 1879. Today, there are 1,320 full-time members of the faculty in 26 departments, ranging from allied health services to surgery. There are some 6,259 doctors out there today that can trace the beginnings of their careers to the medical school in Chapel Hill.
On the athletic field it’s one thing, but there is simply no place anymore for a rivalry between ECU and UNC. There is a need for primary care physicians, and the shortage will only get worse. The General Accounting Office said that as of 2006 there were 22,146 American doctors in residency programs in the U.S., down from 23,801 in 1995.
And ECU and UNC are answering the call. In the past four years, the cooperation has resulted in plans for a cardiovascular institute and dental school in Greenville and a cancer hospital and dental-school expansion in Chapel Hill.
The twosome are now working on its largest collaboration yet: medical school growth that could cost up to half a billion dollars in initial state investments and tens of millions annually in new funding.
In a Feb. 14 meeting, UNC System President Erskine Bowles blessed the schools’ latest joint project, urging them to work together on planning enrollment increases in their medical programs.
ECU and UNC have each requested $2 million from the Legislature to fund the planning process. Representatives from each university will appear March 6 before a UNC Board of Governors committee to discuss their plans.
Each school proposes admitting more medical students and building off-campus clinical sites for upper-level students. UNC-CH would place students in Charlotte and Asheville. ECU hasn’t announced sites for its plan, but reaching out to rural areas is something East Carolina does best.
It won’t come cheap. Both schools need about $239 million for facilities plus $40 million in annual funding to make it work. ECU’s Brody School of Medicine proposes admitting classes of 110 to 120 students annually sometime in this decade. Brody is in the midst of a smaller expansion that will take annual class sizes from 72 last year to 80 in 2009.
When you look at the raw facts, North Carolina needs doctors. It needs them now. If we ever had the luxury of a rivalry between ECU and UNC, we don’t have that luxury now.