The new Cooper Medical School in Camden will bring new wrinkles to medical education

Cooper Medical School of Rowan University (David Swanson/Staff Photographer)
Cooper Medical School of Rowan University (David Swanson/Staff Photographer)
Posted: July 25, 2012

A mail room without mailboxes. A library with few hard copies of books and magazines. Gleaming metal tables for dissecting cadavers, with flat-screen monitors overhead. And just one lecture hall, which its users will try to avoid as much as possible.

These are just a few hallmarks of the changing way that new doctors will learn their trade, at least in Camden. Tuesday marks the grand opening for Cooper Medical School of Rowan University and its new, publicly funded, $139 million building. The faculty have been getting ready for months, fleshing out a curriculum that will be taught with the latest technology and in small "active learning groups." The first 50 students will arrive for orientation in August.

It will be the seventh medical school in the region, second nationally only to the greater New York City area, which has nine. Among the founders' goals are to help address a shortage of primary-care physicians in Camden and beyond, and to bolster the profile of the affiliated medical center, Cooper University Hospital, which faces tough competition across the river in Pennsylvania.

Experts say that adding another school will not necessarily lead to more doctors, for reasons beyond Cooper's control, but will certainly boost the hospital's reputation.

Local officials had sought a medical school in South Jersey at least since the early 1970s, when labor leader George E. Norcross Jr. first tried to marshal support.

In 1976, what is now the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey-School of Osteopathic Medicine opened in Stratford. Then in June 2009, Gov. Jon S. Corzine signed an order creating the new Cooper school - due in part to the lobbying efforts of Norcross' son George E. III, chairman of the board of Cooper University Hospital (and now also an owner of The Inquirer's parent company).

That act set off a flurry of activity - hiring a dean, designing a curriculum, erecting a six-story building, seeking accreditation, recruiting faculty, admitting students.

And buying supplies, from the mundane to the high-tech: 42 flat-screen computer monitors, 1,586 chairs, 117 whiteboards, 14 refrigerator-freezers for research, 168 trash cans. Plus 25 tables for that rite of passage for all would-be physicians: dissecting cadavers.

Not many hard copies of texts for the library, however, as most materials are electronic these days. Ditto for communication with students; hence, the lack of mailboxes.

During a tour two weeks ago, construction managers were busy overseeing the finishing touches, pausing occasionally to chat with Valerie P. Weil, associate dean for finance, administration and operations.

"My to-do list is 50 pages long," Weil said cheerfully.

But before all that could happen, there was a marriage.

Two cultures

It was a partnership between two places with different ways of making decisions: a hospital with a strong chain of command, and a state university full of academics accustomed to deliberation, said Rowan president Ali Houshmand.

"Everything has to be discussed and agreed upon through meetings and more meetings and more meetings," Houshmand said of his university.

Yet starting with a joint retreat in October 2009, the marriage has been marked by trust and successful compromise, he said. Officially, the med school is part of Rowan University, but the hospital is very much a partner, he said.

For example, as plans for the building took shape in the months following the retreat, the Rowan people thought half a floor of laboratory space would be adequate. The hospital folks advocated for three times as much space.

"Their view carried the day," Houshmand said.

A pivotal item on the agenda was finding a dean. So when team members visited several recently created med schools, one of their questions was what to look for in a leader.

They ended up luring away one of the people they met during those visits: Paul Katz, a vice dean at the Commonwealth Medical College in Scranton. That school had opened in 2009; Katz was named the founding dean of Cooper Medical School in June 2010.

A mission took shape. One focus is serving the school's poverty-stricken home city, Camden.

"Our students are going to learn from people who live in this city, and we need to pay it forward, in terms of helping this city be better than it is today," Katz said.

He was talking not just about providing health care, but also about the potential for educational and economic impact, both of which appear to have begun.

Several dozen Camden residents were among those hired to build the med school's six-story building, for example. The school also has started programs to encourage local high schoolers - and even younger students - to pursue careers in medicine.

A few weeks ago, new faculty member Charlene Williams gave lessons in anatomy to a fourth-grade class at Lanning Square School in Camden, armed with chicken bones and the skull of a mountain lion.

Tight schedule

For now, more than half the school's $34 million annual budget is funded by the state. A further $2 million comes from tuition and fees, plus about $6 million from the hospital and $7 million from Rowan, Weil said. Then there are $200,000 in grants and philanthropy, though that number is expected to increase.

The building was financed with bonds issued by the Camden County Improvement Authority, which will be repaid by the state.

Construction workers broke ground in October 2010, leaving barely 19 months before the scheduled grand opening.

But the first winter was "brutal," delaying progress several weeks, recalled John P. Sheridan Jr., chief executive officer of the Cooper Health System. Construction teams worked double shifts and on weekends to make up the difference, Norcross said.

Sheridan and his colleagues at Cooper and Rowan also realized that to secure accreditation, they would need a backup space if, for some reason, the building were not ready. The solution? Contractors built out two unoccupied "shell floors" in Cooper Hospital's new pavilion nearby.

That took eight months and was ready by January 2011. Preliminary accreditation was secured the following June, and then it was time to attract students.

Nearly 2,900 students applied to the new school, of whom 100 were accepted and 50 chose to attend, 37 of them New Jersey residents, Katz said.

School officials sought a diverse student body. Twelve of the 50 students, or 24 percent, are from ethnic groups that are underrepresented in medicine - primarily African American and Latino. The national average is 15 percent, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges.

No one of this year's Cooper class is from Camden, though two city residents are expected to apply for admission next year.

As for hiring faculty, the new school did not have to start from scratch. It plans to use 450 Cooper physicians who already had helped train medical students from Robert Wood Johnson Medical School in New Brunswick.

Beyond that, the new med school hired a dozen faculty to teach the basic sciences: biochemistry, pharmacology, neuroscience and so on. Teaching ability was key, said Michael E. Goldberg, associate dean for academic affairs.

"We're concentrating on master educators, not necessarily master researchers," Goldberg said.

Treating patients

Like some other medical schools around the country, Cooper is moving away from the old "two-by-two" approach, with two years of lecture-heavy instruction in the basic sciences followed by two years more focused on hospital "rotations."

Lectures will take up just six hours a week, whereas in the past students might have spent that much time listening to lectures in a single day - hence the need for just one lecture hall. Students will be given hypothetical patient cases each week and then break up into groups of eight to study them with the help of faculty facilitators.

There are high-tech simulation rooms where students can practice treating dummies, plus recording equipment so they can see their interactions with actors who play the role of patients.

What's more, students will interact with real patients from the start.

Each will be given an "ambulatory clerkship": 10 patients to follow throughout their four years, no matter what health problems arise - under the supervision of trained physicians, of course.

The idea is for students to get a sense of caring for the whole patient, rather than just a snapshot here or there of different patients with unrelated diseases.

It sounds a lot like the job of a primary-care physician, and indeed that is one of the school's goals - to address a growing shortage in that field.

More med-school graduates does not necessarily mean more primary-care doctors, however, as students are often attracted to the more lucrative specialties.

By itself, an increase in graduates does not even lead to more practicing doctors of any kind. Graduates must still complete residency training at a hospital. Almost all those residencies are federally funded, and the number of those slots has remained flat since 1997.

Research at the Dartmouth Atlas of Health Care, meanwhile, suggests that patients in areas with more doctors do not necessarily enjoy better outcomes, but their health-care costs are likely to be higher.

Yet even if the supply of doctors remains static, the presence of a medical school elevates the quality of health care in other ways, said Richard "Buz" Cooper, director of the Center for the Future of the Healthcare Workforce at the New York Institute of Technology.

There tends to be a rich stew of conferences and cross-pollination between the school and hospital and local physician practices, said Cooper, who is not related to the family that gave Cooper Medical School its name.

"It is not only the medical student who gets educated," Cooper said. "It really becomes the focus of medical education for practitioners."

Three years after all the planning, hiring, hammering and recruiting, the experiment will get underway in earnest next month. The first class of the nation's newest medical school will arrive Aug. 13.


Contact Tom Avril at 215-854-2430 or tavril@phillynews.com

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