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Med Center partners: collaboration is the key

By: Megan Erbacher

It would be much easier, according to Dr. Steven Becker, for Indiana University to design and build its own medical education and research facility in the Evansville region to meet medical needs for the next 20 years.

But it wouldn’t be the right move.

One individual university couldn’t provide alone what four educational partners working together will provide, said Becker, director and associate dean of the Indiana University School of Medicine-Evansville. The real issue, he pondered, is constructing a facility that will best educate students and prepare them for their career, particularly when they hit the workforce.

The solution?

Becker, representing IU, along with representatives from the University of Evansville, the University of Southern Indiana and Ivy Tech Community College Southwest campus, are creating an interdisciplinary setting for students to learn and grow in a variety of medical professions. This learning institution is generally known as an academic health science education & research campus, but officials like a easier-to-say acronym, Medical Education & Research Partners (MERP).

With 37 years of experience at Ivy Tech and serving as chancellor of Indiana southwest campus since 1991, Dan Schenk said he has a history of working on initiatives in the community, but none compare to the reach and potential impact of this project.

“It’s a project that is highly desirable for this area for a lot of reasons,” Schenk said. “And the economic impact it will have, I think, really increases the significance of this project. I think it’s going to raise the tide for the entire community and regional area that we serve.”

All involved partners agree, this collaboration is best for students, and saves significant money and keeps the best people in the region at one facility instead of different universities.

“Realistically, training among their peers is critical,” Becker said. “Because medicine, the way it’s practiced and the way it needs to be practiced to be high quality and cost-effective, requires practicing medicine in a team-based approach with the physician as the leader.”

The Pittsburgh-based consulting firm of Tripp Umbach “found that Southern Indiana not only has the need for expansion but the necessary means to fund and develop such programs.”

IU’s Evansville medical campus is currently located on the University of Southern Indiana campus. By June 2014, it will be a four-year medical campus, and Becker explained more space is needed to accommodate all students throughout the four years. The new facility will provide that space.

The new campus, location still to be determined, will include a variety of undergraduate and graduate health education programs. With a lack of physicians and current doctors retiring, MERP will help ease a shortage, Becker said. The campus will act as a central hub for new and continuing medical education available to the entire region, as well as provide research resources.

“That can only help and assist our students, and then ultimately our graduates and the patients,” said Ann White, Dean of Nursing and Health Sciences at USI. “That’s what it’s all about, the patients and caring for those people in the hospital or the home and making sure they can do the best they can with the resources they have.”


Although specific details of class offerings are not ironed out, each campus already knows what types of programs they plan to include when the facility is scheduled to be ready for classes by August 2017.

Many learning spaces will be used by students from every institution, including a simulation lab. This provides a cost savings because identical technology won’t be needed at each college, plus it will be used more regularly.

And officials admitted some prerequisite courses, for example anatomy, might have medical students, physician assistants or even physical therapists all enrolled in the same class. Becker said is a perfect example of working together from day one. It is expected between 1,600 and 2,000 students will study health professions.

But for IU specifically, a dental clinic is a place where IU School of Dentistry students may do on-site clinical rotations, and it would serve patients in need in the Evansville area. Becker said there will be around 24 spots for the first few years, but the center will be built to accommodate 50 to prepare for the next 15-20 years because no one knows what will happen 20 years from now and growth is expected.

UE’s campus does not have sufficient space for current and new programs, said Lynn Penland, UE’s Dean of the College of Education and Health Sciences. So plans include offering a new physician assistant program and officials expect around 60 students to be enrolled.

The university is also discussing adding programs at the new facility, which could include registered nurses earning a bachelor’s degree in nursing, a master’s degree in the public health program or nursing and a doctoral program in physical therapy. By 2020, officials anticipate more than 265 total health professions students to be enrolled at the facility.

This center is an important asset to the community, Penland said.

USI plans to focus on graduate-level education and research at the new center. By 2020, the school expects to have more than 200 students in programs that could include master’s and doctoral-level programs in occupational therapy, a master’s level program in health administration, a doctoral program in nursing practice and a health informatics research center. USI’s undergraduate nursing program will remain on the USI campus.

More than 3,000 students are enrolled across nine health professional programs. Last year, more than 600 degrees were awarded to graduates in these programs and premedical school. IUSM-E is a program within the Pott College of Science, Engineering and Education.

According to Schenk, Ivy Tech is running out of space on their campus, and in the past 10 years when they relocated to the current spot the health science and nursing programs have grown more than 60 percent. There’s no hope of creating additional programs or expanding the existing six — two in nursing; health sciences four programs, health care support and many working on prerequisites to get into nursing programs; paramedic science, surgical technology and medical assisting.

“With our footprint here, we’re sort of land locked,” he said.

With 1,100 students currently in health programs and the goal to move all of its existing health science and nursing programs to the new facility, Schenk said his community college will have the largest physical presence on campus. This will allow space for expansion in the programs. By 2020 Schenk imagines 1,400 students will be enrolled.

Research is a broad spectrum — from basic science test tube research, to full clinical research testing new diets or pharmaceuticals on patients — Becker explained the focus will be more on development patient type research, but over a decade the facility will be able to develop and expand.

The residency program at the facility is technically a separate entity with the four partnering hospitals — St. Mary’s and Deaconess medical centers in Evansville, Memorial Hospital and Health Care in Jasper and Owensboro (Ky.) Health — and patients will be seen in clinical settings around the community including hospitals and medical offices.

Details are still being discussed, but Becker anticipates the program will include 130 spots for medical residents — 80 completing theirs in Indiana and 50 in Owensboro. Funding will come from the federal Medicaid program, as well as support from Indiana and Kentucky; the hospitals and foundations.

Architecture plans won’t be finalized until next year, but Becker envisions an undergraduate side, an Ivy Tech side and a graduate school side, with the shared resources in middle.

And there will be space to grow.

“The vision is really to try to keep the best, our brightest, home, trained and keep them here,” he said.


It’s about creating a stronger sense of community through the opportunity to work together, Penland said. An important basic starting point, Penland said, is broadly investigating community health and discovering areas where there are needs and realizing where contributions can be made.

“It’s just a unique experience for all of us,” she said. “I don’t think there are communities really that have brought together this many diverse groups and tried to organize themselves around a community value There’s just been a lot of excitement about the synergy that exists because we’re all together, working together, talking together.”

With a large section of the 142-mile stretch of Interstate 69 from Evansville to Indianapolis finished, officials hope MERP will be a corridor from Evansville area, through Crane and Bloomington to Indianapolis. This is a unique model that isn’t seen often, Becker said, and will offer health care programs to meet the needs of the region for the next 20-30 years.

“And we’re the southern anchor of life science development in the state,” Becker said.

The whole concept — MERP serving as the symbolic heart of medical education for the whole region — is for students in middle school know about it and have something to look forward to; and high school students being involved so students can see and aspire to become any part of the whole portfolio of the medical field.

“The consultants we’ve worked with on the project indicated to us — the education partners — that this is the only such project in the nation that they’re aware of where you can take a student post high school all the way through residency at one location,” Schenk said.


Local and national statistics have said there is a need for physicians because health care is changing and education needs to change with it, according to Cathy Zimmerman, director of development of IUSM-E.

Since Becker graduated from Washington University’s medical school in 1982, and completed his radiology residency at Vanderbilt in 1986, he easily admitted medical care has vastly changed since then. He said organizations that accredit medical schools now have an interdisciplinary guideline that wasn’t there 10 years ago.

“When I went through, I cannot remember ever running labs with a nursing student,” he said. “All of them (accreditation organizations) are pushing because we realize that good health care providers work together in teams and the sooner you get them working together, the better off they’re going to be,” Becker said.

A change that’s occurred in health care over the years, White said, is the essential need to be as cost effective and efficient as possible, and if health care professionals don’t work together and respect other medical professions, then it’s difficult for those two goals to be met.

“I think as health care gets very interesting, as it’s going to in these next few years, we need to give our students as many tools and skills as we possibly can … I’ve been in health care forever,” she said. “It was always the leaders that were supposed to be taking care of everybody, but that whole vision has changed and now everyone needs to be aware of their responsibilities and how they are a part of this effort to provide safe, quality, effective patient care.”

The four colleges signed letters of intent Oct. 18. And although all involved officials acknowledge there could be bumps along the road in terms of decisions, they agree there will be ways to cooperate and develop solutions through leadership from all entities.

An educators job is to work together to give students the best, richest educational experience possible, and Becker believes this is happening.

“If we don’t act now, proactively, we’re already behind,” Becker said. “As a state and as a region, this is our one chance to try to jump out and at least get in front of it.”

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